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Review of Family Abolition

Capitalism and the Communizing of Care

July 3, 2023

O'Brien Cover
Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care
by M.E. O'Brien
Pluto Press
2023

Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care is a timely and accessible analysis of family abolition through the Marxist tradition. It also provides an overview of contemporary practices and theories of family abolition drawing from Indigenous theory and praxis, the Black radical tradition, and queer and trans liberatory traditions. Drawing on the abolitionist tradition within radical Black feminist scholarship, this book builds on the organizing of the rebellions of 2020 by connecting our contemporary struggles to a much longer history of revolt against enslavement and racial capitalism.

In our present moment of reaction against mass revolt, it is important not to cede ground to far-right analysis and political demands. The right has mobilized the family as something to be preserved in the face of mass impoverishment by targeting both women – and more specifically, their right to self-determination – and LGBTQ people, by positing them as being responsible for our worsening conditions of life.

This text is right on time. Given the continued rise of fascism globally — and the attacks on queer, trans, and gender-variant people particularly — we need to be thinking within the terms of family abolition and the communization of care. As O’Brien writes, “communization is the global generalizing of communist measures, of the immediate appropriation of the means of production for collective human need.”1Family Abolition, p. 215.

Care on the barricades is “the future in the present” on which O’Brien builds the possibility of her vision. The book opens with a description of the 2006 Oaxaca Commune organized after massive police repression of a teachers’ strike. Only collective labor makes rebellions possible, and to sustain long term strikes and barricades requires an overcoming of the individualism of the family, as well as the reactionary uses of the family to put down collective struggle, such as husbands demanding wives return to housework and the state demanding a return to order to end the “disorder” of communal care. Later in the book, O’Brien details many more examples of insurgent social reproduction in order to develop the commune as the speculative horizon of family abolition.

The imposition of the nuclear family as a primary economic unit is tied to the history of colonization, imperialism, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism. While sometimes the Left may brand the family as progressive under the demand of the so-called “family wage,” or as a reprieve to alienation under neoliberalism, the Right mobilizes the concept of the family as the linchpin of civilization. Against all of these readings of the family, O’Brien sees the family as a “limit to human emancipation” and a “limit to our imagination.”2Family Abolition, p. 4. There are no guarantees to care or love in the family. Families continue to be a primary site of child abuse, sexual abuse, and violence.

Further, the individualism and social isolation fostered by the family is opposed to social revolution. As O’Brien put it, “so long as the private household is maintained, no revolutionary process can overcome class society.”3Family Abolition, p. 5. Social contradictions that are many times relegated to the family like child care, dealing with sexual violence, and the gendered division of labor have consistently ended revolutionary organizations and movements. Instead, “family abolition is the recognition that no human being should even own or entirely dominate another person, even children.”4Family Abolition, p. 7. O’Brien persuasively argues that the end of class society requires the abolition of the family because “family abolition is the destruction of private households as systems of accumulating power and property at the cost of other’s well-being.”5Family Abolition, p. 7.

The book is broken up into three major sections:

Part I: The Impossible Family

Chapter 1 analyzes the family as a “private household, a unit of privatized care.”6Family Abolition, p. 21. Chapter 2 reveals the family as a site of violence and coercion. The family is linked to fascism, white nationalism, the carceral system, sexism, sexual violence, and the abuse of children, elders, and disabled people. Chapter 3 focuses on the meaning of abolishing the family within the Hegelian-Marxist concept of Aufhebung. Aufhebung is a term that refers to a process by which something transforms into something else through developments that both eliminate and preserve elements of its former state of being.

Drawing on Black feminist theorists analyzing the 2020 uprisings and the family life of George Floyd, O’Brien reveals what is to be preserved and what is to be overcome in our current understanding of the family. She writes, “instead of destroying the family, we must abolish it by preserving what is crucial to it—human love, connection, care, community, romance—without binding these qualities to the particular form of the household within capitalism.”7Family Abolition, p. 56.

While colloquial understandings of the verb “to abolish” tend to reduce it to a solely destructive process of absolute elimination, the Hegelian-Marxist dialectical meaning of Aufhebung is more in line with what contemporary abolitionists mean when they talk about that term: abolition. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has famously explained it: “Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack.”8https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html. When O’Brien talks about abolishing the family, what she is really talking about is the struggle to build life-affirming institutions to meet the real human needs that contemporary families imperfectly and unevenly aspire to address.

Part II: A History of Family Abolition

Chapter 4 looks at the history of industrialization and the development of the bourgeois family. Marx and Engels were family abolitionists, but O’Brien challenges their visions of what comes after the bourgeois family. It should not be universal heterosexual monogamy. While Marx and Engels understood capitalism to be rendering the bourgeois family obsolete, they failed to see the much more diverse and life-affirming possibilities of non-alienated social relations which are not reducible to heterosexual monogamy. Following O’Brien, what becomes possible with communism is true gender self-determination and the formation of free relationships of care and love that will reach beyond the confines of a relationship dyad or nuclear family form.

Chapter 5 focuses on the development of bourgeois family ideology within the context of settler colonialism and chattel slavery in North America: “the history of the family is also the history of white supremacy and genocide.”9Family Abolition, p. 91. The chapter ends with a vision of indigenous queer communism, quoting Lou Cornum: “We work to form kinships, not in the bio-bind of blood lines and percent nor in the institutional pacts of marriage and property inheritance.”10Family Abolition, p. 93 Chapter 6 looks at the role of sex and sexuality during industrialization and urbanization through an analysis of the Paris Commune, Reconstruction-era U.S., Charles Fourier’s utopian socialism, and the writings of Friedrich Engels. Chapter 7 analyzes the history of socialist theory and praxis on the family, including socialists such as Bebel, Lenin, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Zetkin, and Kollontai, continuing to the rise of trade unionism and the formulation of the “family wage” as a contingent outcome of class struggle.

This brings us to O’Brien’s engagement with communization theory and her critique of the worker’s movement as it became organized around a particular “worker identity” that tended to reduce its concept of liberation to universalized waged labor under state authority.

In part as a response, chapter 8 outlines the “Red Decade” and the radical theorizations of sex and gender emerging from theorists and organizations including Mario Mieli, Guy Hocquenghem, David Fernbach, Third World Gay Revolution, S.T.A.R., Shulamith Firestone, Frances Beale, Kay Lindsay, and the Wages for Housework campaign. Chapter 9 goes deeper into communization theory’s analysis of the worker’s movement and the consequences for a communist analysis of the family.

This text is right on time. Given the continued rise of fascism globally—and the attacks on queer, trans, and gender-variant people particularly—we need to be thinking within the terms of family abolition and the communization of care.

These complications and challenges to the problematic “worker identity” that coalesced in the labor movements of the early twentieth century fit well with – and expand – the abolitionist perspective grounding the book. This is an important theoretical advance. Putting communization theory within an abolitionist perspective provides important theoretical ground for struggles seeking to combine critiques of imperialism, settler colonialism, and capitalism within a fighting framework that goes beyond doubling down on the virtues of the worker. Both communization theory and abolitionist perspectives reveal the problematic ways that forms of bourgeois respectability emerge in working-class movements as ways of breaking solidarity between those most dispossessed and exploited by racial capitalism.

While the book mentions many times that is it written from the perspective of communization theory, it does not problematize or critically interrogate the relationship of communization theory to the lineages of indigenous or Black radical abolitionist traditions that is seeks to bring together. This is not to say this theoretical work cannot be done but that it is not immediately clear how these traditions fit together in theory and practice. It could have helped to look at Colectivo Situaciones, the work of Verónica Gago, or go deeper into the history of mass revolts and organizing in Latin America and the Caribbean to bring together some of these lineages.

Part III: Toward the Commune

Chapter 10 outlines the cooptation of the LGBT movement in the 1990s and 2000s as it was reduced to marriage equality and inclusion in the military. Rather than challenging the family, mainstream LGBT organizations doubled down on it by merely demanding “family diversity” and “chosen family” as solutions to our collective crises of care. Family abolition is reducible neither to the welfare state nor diverse family forms. For O’Brien it is about “making and becoming kin” in a way that goes beyond communities of affinity or chosen families such that everyone is able to get the care they need.11Family Abolition, p. 179.

Though “chosen families” offer a version of reprieve under existing conditions, O’Brien challenges the idea that chosen families offer a solution to our collective problems because the need for care is universal. There are many reasons why someone might be left out of receiving care if it is left up to the subjective choice of affinity or friend groups. Her concept of the commune quite rightly demands the provision of care for all, regardless of one’s popularity.

Chapter 11 details the meaning of communist social reproduction not reducible to the state, the wage, or the family. Here O’Brien offers a concrete outline of the qualities of communist social reproduction by clearly defining each of its constitutive terms “communist,” “social,” and “reproduction.”12Family Abolition, pp. 194-198. These definitions culminate in a description of universalized gender freedom and communist social reproduction.

In order to further ground these definitions and the aspirations they point towards, chapter 12 offers background on O’Brien’s history of organizing and participation in projects aiming to embody family abolition and insurgent social reproduction. Here she addresses how past communes around the world have worked to overcome sexual abuse and the other social dynamics of racial capitalism. This chapter goes into many essential aspects of what the commune to come will need to address. One should only take the very short sections on overcoming the social dynamics of racial capitalism and interpersonal issues of violence as placeholders for much more needed discussion. This book is already doing a lot over the course of its 246 pages, and it cannot go into the needed detail that one should seek out from global abolitionist feminist analysis around these issues.

Chapter 13, “Communes to Come,” is a speculative answer to the question, “How can we take care of each other?” This chapter can be read as a corollary to her co-authored speculative fiction book Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune 2052-2072 (Common Notions, 2022). While the book continually toggles between US-based examples and other examples and theories from around the world, it could have done more at the outset to clearly outline what parts of the perspective the author thinks are particular to certain conditions or locales versus aspects that can be seen globally. While drawing from diverse perspectives to develop the analysis of family abolition, the consequences are not fully explored in varied contexts. If there is anything serious to be criticized in this excellent volume it is the deeply speculative nature of this latter part of the text.

While O’Brien argues against Marx’s principled hesitancy to come up with detailed visions of a non-alienated future, there are many liberties taken in coming up with a vision of a different world that can be hard to justify within a non-fiction text. This is the place in the text that I think moves away from a Hegelian-Marxist perspective, which entails a “speculative” understanding diametrically opposed to the sense of “speculative” meant by “speculative fiction.” What a speculative analysis meant for Marx was an analysis that takes critical stock of the totality of the present reality to show its places of crisis and instability ripe for transformation — but nothing beyond this.

This is not to say that what O’Brien writes is illegitimate. On the contrary, I think people want this kind of speculation, and not Hegelian-Marxist speculative science alone. As an accessible text that can be read much more widely than many, if not all, “speculative” texts in the other sense of the term, I think this pseudo-speculative fiction ending suits a text seeking to be popularly read for inspiration.

The book concludes with an analysis of “the beloved community” as theorized by Martin Luther King Jr. in conversation with bell hooks and Marx’s concept of Gemeinwesen (“community-being”). Here the idea of family abolition as the communization of care is expanded and defined through the experience of the beloved community: “The Abolition of the family must be the positive creation of a society of generalized human care and queer love.”13Family Abolition, p. 246.

On the whole, O’Brien offers a critical reply to the right-wing demand for the heteronormative bourgeois family responding in the revolutionary affirmative:

YES, we queer and trans people ARE demanding the abolition of the family. We are demanding this because the family cannot end our collective oppression and exploitation by racial capitalism, nor can it be the vehicle for the universalization of the care we need to survive.

The strategy of focusing on the abolition of the family rather than a more general abolition of capitalism stems from the book’s desire to offer a speculative articulation of how building larger-scale revolutionary forms of social reproduction can transition us to a classless society. This will require the abolition of the family as both an economic unit and the gatekeeper of the care required to live a flourishing life.

Rather than a blueprint for a new world, Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care pushes us to think beyond the solutions of the present by growing the different revolutionary organizations of care already at work in our mass revolts and uprisings. While there remain many questions regarding the details of how to get from here to there, this book makes dreaming of a world we can all live in seem tantalizingly close and possible.

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