Defamiliarizing Family: Abolish the Family Review

By Johanna Isaacson

A decade ago, I sat in a large seminar classroom in which feminist luminary Kathi Weeks presented her life changing book, The Problem With Work. In a discussion that followed her talk she was confronted with the utopianism, i.e. “impossibility,” of the anti-work horizon she had mapped out. To this she responded succinctly, “The future is not for us.” 

This may seem a bleak prospect to some, even a sign of political resignation. But Weeks’ intent was just the opposite. For her, this negation was a recognition that our life-long conditioning to imagine only moderate change and limited possibility is not objectively true. Just because we have been trained to deny radical hope doesn’t mean utopian transformation can’t happen. 

While many fear this horizon of the unknown and unimaginable, Sophie Lewis bravely dares to approach it in all of her brilliant, groundbreaking writing, and her new book Abolish the Family again passionately and playfully brings us along for the wild ride. The book draws from the ideas and projects of wide-ranging thinkers to support Lewis’s case, but in the least stodgy style imaginable. Holding true to her utopian project, Lewis crafts “a manifesto for care and liberation”—the book’s subtitle—in wave after wave of exuberant and militant prose.

Lewis begins by compassionately addressing the reader’s almost certain reservations at the concept of family abolition, recognizing that even those of us with ambivalent or terrible experiences of domestic life can’t imagine care or relationality at all without evoking the family. She invites us to recognize that if “to love a person is to struggle for their autonomy as well as for their immersion in care…” then the family, insofar as under capitalism it is a means to privatize care, may actually hinder and limit the amount of love available to all. Our desperate attachment to this “disciplinary, scarcity-based trauma-machine” is likely to obscure more hopeful and inclusive social forms on the horizon. 

Psychologically, it makes sense to cling to the family’s “organized poverty” that at least seems solid and tangible, when any alternative prospect is as-yet formless, and yet capitalism relies on these fears to discipline us into patterns of austerity and labor that perpetuate the worst aspects of the family. This means that families who reject a child’s queerness or difference may insist that their progeny conform in the name of “natural” love, that the family’s chauvinistic, competitive pedagogical function as a “microcosm of the nation state” can go unquestioned, that those who don’t submit to these rules can be left to die. Recognizing this mafia-like self-perpetuating toxicity of the family form can open spaces of inchoate experimentation with new, liberatory, collective forms of social organization. Indeed, Lewis recognizes these seeds in daring forms of mutual aid that eschew “property love,” a term she borrows from Alexandra Kollontai, and rather model comradeliness and de-privatized care. 

Lewis goes on to respectfully address critiques that see family abolition as an overly broad and sweeping concept. Surely, it is only the heterosexist, patriarchal nuclear family that should be abolished, while the extended and chosen families historically formed by POC and queer communities should be preserved. Lewis offers sympathy to this criticism and admits that she has deliberated on this point herself. In the end, though, she feels drawn to non-white and queer theorists who make more radical demands in relation to the family. Through engaging with the work of Hortense Spillers, Tiffany Lethabo King, Jennifer Nash, Hazel Carby, Paul Gilroy, Kathi Weeks, Kay Lindsey, Lola Olufemi, and Annie Olaloku-Teriba she asks us to consider that the family form targeted by the concept of family abolition is always structured by white, settler, heterosexual, patriarchal values and is always a means of forcing people into the enclosure of privatized care. “The family is a shield that human beings have taken up, quite rightly, to survive a war,” she claims. But “if we cannot countenance ever putting down that shield, perhaps we have forgotten that the war does not have to go on forever.” In the quest to imagine a life beyond the battleground, Lewis looks to models of marooning and undercommoning that originate in communities of color before or in reaction to the pillaging, family-centric, culture of settler capitalism. 

In the balance, Lewis’s manifesto is less interested in berating those with investments in the family than in exploring possibilities we dare not to dream of. In that spirit Lewis offers “a potted history of Family Abolitionism” in which she explores contestatory visions of social organization by a range of leftist, feminist thinkers such as Charles Fourier, nineteenth century Indigenous and maroon communities, Marx and Engels, Alexandra Kollontai, Shulamith Firestone, gay and lesbian and children’s liberation movements, and wages for housework and welfare rights activists. Through these disparate movements she conjures hopeful strains of decolonial reinvention, mothering outside of motherhood, and work refusal, while recognizing the hopes that these projects offered were constrained by capitalist violence. Lewis locates herself in a current wave of twenty-first century trans Marxism that dares to speculate about the “architectures, challenges, timelines, infrastructures, and affects of family abolition.” 

Continuing this project of radical hope, the chapter “Comrades Against Kinship” outlines some of these emergent concepts at the heart of trans Marxism. Looking to public collective encampments that rise up among the unhoused and protesters, Lewis imagines “cradles of possibility, relief, and reciprocity in the desert.” Here and throughout, Abolish the Family serves as a companion piece with the recent fascinating speculative fiction publication by M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi, Everything for Everyone. In different registers both texts imagine expanding forms of social organization that arise from the “protest kitchen” and other intimate collective projects.

Tracing the origin of the word abolition to the German term Aufhebung, Lewis reminds us that she is not advocating a wiping away of the family form but an as-yet-unknown combination of “lifting up, destroying, preserving, and radically transforming, all at once.” The family form is not without a “latent utopian kernel” that is aspirational towards “reciprocal care, interdependence, and belonging.” But to realize this abundance we must first seek the family’s abolition, claims Lewis. Only then can we resurrect these generative qualities from “a casket labeled ‘exclusivity,’ ‘chauvinism,’ ‘race,’ ‘property,’ ‘heredity,’ ‘identity,’ ‘competition.’” Even Lewis, whose passionate and hopeful quest for this resurrection and renewal seems boundless, can’t imagine how to “desire it fully.” And yet she urges us, with her, to reject the idea that this this not-fully-knowable horizon of family abolition should be a source of dread, and instead look towards future transformation with utopian anticipation. 

Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. She is the author of Stepford Daughters: Weapons for Feminists in Contemporary Horror from Common Notions Press and The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books. She has published widely in academic and popular journals including, with Annie McClanahan, the entry for “Marxism and Horror” in The Sage Handbook of Marxism (2022). She runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s