The Idea of Children

By Madeline Lane-McKinley |

So frequently we have seen the figure of the child deployed to moralize what should be political. Family values campaigns. Pro-life propaganda. Today, this moralization is what distinguishes the rhetoric of families belong together from the insistence that no human should be caged.

In extracting “the family” as the ideological backbone of mass resistance to ICE, however, many questions are in danger of evaporating into moralistic rhetorics. For liberals and conservatives alike, the idea of children is a political instrument to which various radical traditions have developed a healthy aversion. Yet as a result, there is a scarcity of anti-capitalist thought about children.

These are some notes written in a moment of urgency, a moment when the idea of children demands more rigorous consideration.

“…but what about the children?”

We’re all familiar with the cliché – but what about the children? We hear this, all too often, as a conservative trope that has little at all, in fact, to do with children.

With innocence as its baseline, the liberal idea of children seeks to make natural (but also to moralize) a property relation between child and parent. “Innocence” is code for powerless — a way to fetishize the child as both dependent and sub-human.

This idea of the child is indistinct from private property. And it is likewise through the logic of private property that Trump justifies family separations: “when you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally — which should happen — you have to take the children away.” This logic of the parent-child property relation is why Jeff Sessions can speak of children like a bag of cocaine: “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

In liberal critiques of Trump’s zero tolerance policy, we can locate an important contradiction in the idea of children. On the one hand, the child is an idealized subject, whose ostensible innocence is formed in contrast to an articulation of adulthood as guilty, complicit, and flawed. On the other hand, the child is perpetually subordinated, not only understood as property, but as unthinking and without agency.

To what extent can this contradiction be not only undermined, but refused? Rarely has the rejection of the child’s political instrumentality been in the service of children.

Too often the rejection of the child’s instrumentality in the false binary of the U.S. political landscape has been in the formulation of an entirely adult-centered conception of political practice. So as not to deploy the figure of the child as an ideological tool, perhaps, the left has made little room for these concerns at all. However centered on the ‘adult’ as political subject, such political conceptualizations exclude more than just children, and even the vast majority of adults. Implicit in this idea of adulthood is a version of neoliberal ‘self-sufficiency’: the promise of an autonomous, market-mediated individualism, whose lack of social resources is a mark of independence. This idea of adulthood excludes many adults — it is not about age, but the non-recognition of care.

What is keeping us from politicizing these problems?

The idea and the material reality of children being “taken away” cannot be imagined as theft: we must insist that this is a discrete form of torture. The distinct horror of the ‘tender age facility’ is precisely this: a separation not from The Family, but from care. Children come into this world, inspiringly, without an ideology of property relations, yet with an undeniable need to be cared for.

Bringing care to the foreground of our political outrage, while disassociating from the ideological pressure to embrace institutions of private property, can be a way to insist that no human should be caged. All humans need care, and need care differently. The child is not the only way of understanding this, though as a caretaker of a six-year old, this is how I am reminded of this throughout most hours of the day.

The Care Crisis

More and more, we hear the present moment described in terms of a care crisis. The accelerated privatization of care is a regime of coerced care labor. It’s estimated that 16 million Americans perform the role of a primary caretaker unwaged. Neoliberal economic policies, as Evelyn Nakano Glenn writes, have “exacerbat[ed] the care crisis by intensifying the conflicts between caring and earning and increasing the stresses on caregivers, both unpaid and paid.” [1] With the dissolution of the family wage, this ‘care crisis’ must be understood more systemically: Nancy Fraser argues “the crisis of social reproduction is not freestanding and cannot be adequately grasped on its own,” suggesting that the focus on care should come with a broader theory of ‘general crisis.’ [2]

The focus on care presents an opportunity for broadening and making legible a politics of family abolition. However, this opportunity will be missed without a keen sense of the demands of care, particularly the labors performed seemingly out of love under social conditions of No Alternative.

In feminist traditions of family abolitionism, these questions rush to the surface. That is: how does the revolutionary horizon of the end of ‘the family’ as a unit of private property mobilize us toward a fuller, less exploitive vision of care? [3] This longing for collective caretaking must be hand-in-hand with any discourse against the family — otherwise doomed to logics of self-management and autonomy. The alternative posed by family abolition cannot, in other words, be a matter of self-imposed austerity on behalf of neoliberal capitalism. Rather than orienting toward this question of abolition in negational terms — withdrawing, undoing, subtracting — how might alternatives to The Family be made imaginable and practicable as a political project of dismantling capitalism’s care crisis?

Fire-Damage.jpg

Abolish the Family For Kids

“The purpose of a thought-experiment [is] not to predict the future… but to describe reality, the present world.” – Ursula K. Le Guin [4]

It is an unspoken truth that while many children fear adults, many adults also fear children. How would you talk to a child about family abolition? How would you frame a critique of white bourgeois patriarchy, the institution of marriage, the logic of private property? What language would you use? Do you feel it would have to be over-simplified, dumbed down, uncritical? Why? What would you have to do to your own thinking in this process? What would you have to ask yourself?

The child’s imagination is one of the most vital models we have for the project of ideologically disrupting capitalist realist epistemologies — confronting the rationalist rebukes of liberalism that systematically infantilize revolutionary politics. [5] But this critical capacity we encounter in thinking with and learning from children remains politically untapped and socially devalued, throughout even our most radical traditions of thought.

Caring for children can be an ongoing tragedy of naturalizing capitalism in order to survive in it.

Yet caring for children can also entail questioning the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. We teach our kids about stealing – either not to steal, or how not to get caught – but how do we do this without leaving private property uninterrogated?

How do we make use of commune, in this sense, as the anti-family?

Willful Children

Colonial rule has imagined and positioned the colonized as children and animals. The willful child, as Sara Ahmed suggests, is the story of the subaltern: “addressed as a member of the subordinate class,” Ahmed writes, the willful child “is subordinate when she refuses to be a member of that class. The demand to be willing [is] articulated as the demand to obey the colonizer (who takes the place of the parent): the rod comes to embody his sovereign will.”

Ahmed leaves us with this imperative:

“We must learn from where and when the willful child comes up. As soon as she appears, the rod comes quickly after her. She tells us what might happen if we refuse to give up. She tells us what we become when we keep coming up, when we protest against the violence of the rod, when we challenge how some are beaten as if beating is a right: black bodies, brown bodies. Some have to become willful to survive a history.” [6]

No Borders: Abolish Adulthood

“Sometimes I think the conditions of daily life, of everyday oppressions, of survival, not to mention the temporary pleasures accessible to most of us, render much of our imagination inert. We are constantly putting out fires, responding to emergencies, finding temporary refuge, all of which make it difficult to see anything other than the present… When movements have been unable to clear the clouds, it has been the poets – no matter the medium – who have succeeded in imagining the color of the sky, in rendering the kinds of dreams and futures social movements are capable of producing. Knowing the color of the sky is far more important than counting the clouds.” – Robin D.G. Kelley [7]

On the one hand, this is a demand for child-inclusivity in our political struggles. We have left children to be the concern of the right – a right for which the fetus is more important than the child, precisely because the issue has nothing to do with children but with property. On the other hand, this is a critique of an ideology of ‘child-inclusivity,’ to the extent that such inclusion always already renders children marginal to the ostensibly ‘adult world’ of political struggles.

More than de-centering the adult from revolutionary thought, the border between child and adult must be abolished. As in any abolitionist project, imaginability is an integral problem. This is a problem that’s necessarily taken up in revolutionary terms. That is: how do we re-think the adult-child relationship as one of mutual care and learning? How do we take up the challenges of comradeship, without leaving the concept of childhood unquestioningly defined by capital?

In the tradition of feminist utopian thought, these questions have been explored more deeply than elsewhere, while leaving open certain points of inquiry yet to be politically awakened. In The Dialectic of Sex, for instance, Shulamith Firestone projects a revolutionary horizon for which children’s libidinality has no borders with adult sexuality. [8] As in her thorny, often categorically confused explorations of ‘sex,’ Firestone writes through an ongoing friction with conditions of unimaginability. In seeking to understand child libidinality outside the structural threat of molestation and abuse, her text is about the trying and failing to imagine a world of freedom, fundamentally antagonistic toward the social totality for which this freedom appears impossible, even ‘unnatural.’

Through a framework of care and comradeship, the imaginability of shared non-adulthood can be more delicately engaged than it is in Firestone’s vision, predicated on forgotten histories of child abuse. Illuminating different thresholds of imaginability, care helps us to renegotiate the proprietary relationship of adult and child — to undo the transhistorical character of the white bourgeois ‘family’ with more expansive forms of mutual caring. While this un-bordered world is unthinkable without total revolution, these questions get us closer to the thinkability of revolution, sharpening our politics for making such a future, and strengthening our capacities to struggle collectively. It is a start, among many others.

 

Notes and Citations

Much thanks to

[1] Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America, Harvard University Press, 2000

[2] Nancy Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” New Left Review, July-August 2016

[3] bell hooks articulates this intervention with great clarity: “problematically, for the most part feminist thinkers have never wanted to call attention to the reality that women are often the primary culprits in everyday violence against children simply because they are the primary parental caregivers. While it was crucial and revolutionary that the feminist movement called attention to the fact that male domination in the home often creates an autocracy where men sexually abuse children, the fact is that masses of children are daily abused verbally and physically by women and men. Maternal sadism often leads women to emotionally abuse children, and feminist theory has not yet offered both feminist critique and feminist intervention when the issue is adult female violence against children.” (“Feminist Parenting,” Feminism is for Everybody, South End Press, 2000)

[4] Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, introduction

[5] This includes more recently the infantilization of precarity, as a dominant form of unquestioning neoliberal austerity. As Johanna Isaacson writes, “The ideologeme of “maturity” as deployed against youthful, utopian uprisings in the struggle against austerity, serves to create an epistemological framework that combines an ethics of ascesis, patriarchal familial structures, and naturalized hierarchical global uneven development in a blinding constellation. This understanding of maturity—insisting that there is no alternative to harsh austerity for ordinary people (as large financial institutions are bailed out)—has become hegemonic in our moment.” (See: “Life Versus Survival in ‘Tangerine’”, Blind Field, August 11, 2015)

[6] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press, 2017

[7] Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Beacon Press, 2002

[8] Firestone writes of a freedom for “children to do whatever they wish to do sexually,” specifying that in a world of feminist revolution, “all forms of sexuality would be allowed and indulged,” arguing that “[if] the adult/child cultural distinctions are destroyed, we will no longer need the sexual repression that maintains [them].” (208-209) Problematically, yet consistent with the text’s foundational contradiction, Firestone conflates the distinction between adult/child with that of male/female — a biological framework that struggles to untangle a theory of ‘culture.’ Elsewhere, I more deeply pry into some of these integral problems in Firestone’s project, while here I want to emphasize the strong correspondence between her utopian method and her vision of “feminist revolution.”

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