Should we abolish the family?

A recent book makes the case for moving beyond biological bonds.

Should we abolish the family?

A recent book makes the case for moving beyond biological bonds.

Towards the end of her new book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family, the social theorist Sophie Lewis, whose utopian anti-family ideals have made her a figure of hate for the religious right (as well as attracting scorn from a certain sort of “podcast” leftist), relates the following anecdote from her childhood:

“The probable origin of my years-long pursuit of alternative — utopian — surrogacy is a memory from childhood I only lately realized I've been harboring. It is a memory that pertains to a traumatic conversation with my father. He was driving me, my mother, and my brother home from an amateur play that some friends had staged in their garden. Musing incredulously on its themes, I recall cheerfully asking from the back seat: ‘but, Dad, it’s ridiculous. If you found out that we (my brother and I) were actually the biological children of the milkman, you wouldn't love us any less all of a sudden, would you?’ I had meant it as a rhetorical question only. But there was a stony, awkward silence that made clear to me I was not going to get the answer I needed. I felt so devastated that, for the rest of the drive, I could not speak.”

At the risk of sounding psychologically reductive, in a sense the whole of Lewis’s book can be read as an attempt to prove her father wrong: to show that when it comes to family, biology need not enjoy the privileged status we typically assign it. Or actually, something even more extreme than that: that the privileged status we afford biology is a direct consequence of how the bourgeois family, as a capitalist institution, is making it impossible to love and be loved as we ought to. That in fact, if Lewis and her brother had been the biological children of the milkman, there would have been nothing to stop their father loving them even more.

The bulk of the book is about the realities of commercial surrogacy (which typically means: the renting of the wombs of poorer women to carry the embryos of wealthy couples, who for whatever reason can’t gestate a fetus themselves), especially as practiced at the Akanksha clinic in Gujarat (reflecting Lewis's background in academic geography). In a way, Full Surrogacy Now seeks to do for this particular branch of marginalized, feminized, often explicitly criminalized labor what last year’s Revolting Prostitutes did for sex work. But the book is at its most provocative and ambitious when it strays into the realms of utopian speculation — ultimately, according to Lewis, we need to reform commercial surrogacy not by imposing a more appropriate legal regime, but rather by abolishing the family.

For Lewis, the bourgeois family, based as it is on blood ties, heterosexual coupledom, and the domestic labor of poorer people/people of color (e.g. in the form of live-in nannies), serves to reproduce society in ways that are “stratified, commodified, cis-normative, and neo-colonial.” “Reproductive futurism” — the term, derived from queer theory, which names the fixed belief that politics is about fighting for “a better future for our children” — makes a fetish of babies and baby-making. But in truth it only really fetishizes the making of babies who are white, able-bodied, cis, and middle/upper-class, who can grow up to be “productive members of society inheriting both the genes and property of their parents. In this, babies are also conceived of as “belonging,” to their parents — “a ‘baby all your own to fuck up as you please.’” None of us are loved enough, and the bourgeois family, in many ways, is to blame:

“Discomfort, coercion, molestation, abuse, humiliation, depression, battery, murder, mutilation, loneliness, blackmail, exhaustion, psychosis, gender-straitjacketing, racial programming, and embourgeoisement. The private family is the headquarters of all these.”

For the contemporary right (although also, as Lewis points out, for basically everyone since the Victorians), the white, middle-class birth rate is always seen as plummeting, in crisis. By contrast, marginalized people typically suffer from an “imaginary hyperfecundity,” which is perceived as threatening (hence talk of “white genocide”). In Lewis’s understanding, commercial surrogacy helps solve this (perceived) problem by exploiting the gestational labor of (mostly) women of color, (often) based in the developing world — to provide more white babies, biological heirs, to bourgeois couples in the West. The exploitation involved in commercial surrogacy can therefore only be eliminated by exploring something that, Lewis thinks, we should be very much motivated to explore anyway: new paradigms of family life, inspired both by queer “chosen families” and the polyparental child-rearing practiced by societies in the Global South. In such a world, Lewis says, children will finally be allowed to belong “only to themselves.”

“Let's bring about the conditions of possibility for open-source, fully collaborative gestation. Let's prefigure a way of manufacturing one another noncompetitively. Let's hold one another hospitably, explode notions of hereditary parentage, and multiple real, loving solidarities. Let's build a care commune based on comradeship, a world sustained by kith and kind more than kin. Where pregnancy is concerned, let pregnancy be for everyone. Let us overthrow, in short, the ‘family.’”

“Family abolition” is therefore, despite how it might sound to some ears, a thoroughly utopian demand. Decoupled from norms of gender, race, property, and biology, Lewis envisions an exploding of love, an exploding of care relations — the permeation of motherhood across everything in the world (here the emphasis is not on “mother” the noun, but on “mothering” as a verb, an activity which, as Lewis argues, anyone of any gender can engage in). “We can learn to mother ourselves,” Lewis quotes Audre Lorde as promising those who “were not meant to survive.” As Lewis herself tweeted recently, “Everyone deserves many mothers.” And so a world of love beyond biological kinship can bloom.

An ideal, healthy, maximally loving family life may not be possible — but I’ve still always longed to start one.

But I have to admit that, even as someone who finds Lewis’s basic skepticism about the primacy of biology — and demand for better care relations — essentially compelling, there is something about all this that I find... almost nauseatingly vertiginous.

“It is terrible, but I still want it,” a 73 year-old retired engineer named Geoffrey Chesters was quoted as saying of Brexit earlier this year. And in a way I suppose that’s exactly how I feel about the (bourgeois, biological) family. This might sound unreasonable, but we’re talking here about the sort of thing that exists at the margins of what rationality can encompass.

My own upbringing may not have been perfect, but I wouldn’t be the person I am now if I wasn’t raised by the parents I had, in the way that I was. One can wish to have been raised differently, but if one were in fact raised differently, one would simply be different, and then who knows how one would feel — in its own way, the wish to have had a different family is as futile as the wish to have never been born.

An ideal, healthy, maximally loving family life may not be possible — but I’ve still always longed to start one. When my son was born, he was drawn to his mother for irrational, biological reasons, although not necessarily ones to do with genetic kinship. He recognizes her smell from her long months gestating him; her breast milk tastes like the amniotic fluid he drank in the womb — the taste of everything he has ever known. It would make no sense to conceive of this beautiful, demanding little worm as anything remotely resembling “property” — but I still wouldn’t, obviously, want him to choose to be raised by anyone else save me and his mother. Further, he would be unable to make such a choice; days-old babies do not make those sorts of choices. The decision to set oneself against your primary caregivers can only be made against the background of however your primary caregivers happen to have formed you.

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel gives us an argument precisely to this effect. For Hegel, the family is a basic sphere of recognition — one of the fundamental ways in which we become aware of ourselves, in which we learn to participate in the world both with and for others. I am first aware of those around me as “mother,” “father”; I become “brother,” “son” (etc.). For Hegel, what characterizes the family, more than anything else, is love. “The first moment in love is that I do not wish to be a self-subsistent and independent person and that, if I were, then I would feel defective and incomplete. The second moment is that I find myself in another person, that I count for something in the other, while the other in turn comes to count for something in me,” he writes. Regardless of how flawed they might ultimately be, those love-relationships we form in the home are what makes us capable of functioning as individuals within wider society. Family unity is indeed, Hegel says, a “self-restriction,” but it is also a “liberation” — because it is in the family that individuals first obtain “substantial self-consciousness.”

Of course, Hegel also provides us with a derivation of the family which very much suggests that the ideal “family” will be the bourgeois, private household: a cisgendered, heterosexual couple who, having demurred from sex before marriage (Hegel does actually give us an argument for this), create children in part to manifest their love for one another — but also to provide themselves with legitimate heirs. This private household will also be harshly disciplinary: at one point, Hegel talks about the point of discipline as being to “break the child's self-will.”

In part however this is a simple matter of historical contingency, as well as the product of a genuine conservatism on Hegel's part — the Philosophy of Right was written in 1820. We can discard much of what Hegel says about how the family ought to function, without abandoning his basic psychological, developmental point: that for any human beings we could ever possibly conceive of as living an adequate existence, at least some of the caring, nurturing relationships they experience are going to be experienced as psychologically primary — and are thus most obviously characterizable as “familial.” Indeed, Lewis even seems to acknowledge this herself: even the modes of queer resistance she highlights are in some way modelled on the family, with queer chosen families continuing to apply terms such as “mother,” “daughter,” “sister” etc. “It takes a family,” I heard Lewis remark at a recent talk in Newcastle, “to escape the family.”

Perhaps every problem the family is subject to, and all the suffering and injustice it perpetuates, is simply an indication that it is not yet enough like itself. Yes, the social norms we are subject to regarding family and kinship are bad ones, closing us off, punishing difference, making us unable to love as extensively and generously as we might. But then perhaps our duty as caregivers, of whatever sort (parents, teachers, nannies, godparents, family friends) is to help raise children who, as adults, are able to become better people than we are: braver, more open, more loving. More capable of shaping a better world for themselves.

I want heirs, sayeth everything that suffereth,” Lewis quotes Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as pronouncing. “I want children, I do not want myself.” For Nietzsche, this is intended (as far as I can tell, who honestly can read Thus Spoke Zarathustra without wearying almost immediately of its tiresome biblical shtick?) as a sarcastic proclamation of his gospel of fatalistic joy. “Joy, however,” Zarathustra continues, “does not want heirs or children, joy wants itself, wants eternity, wants recurrence, wants everything eternally the same.” For Lewis, the line is invoked as a way of calling into question our “irrational exuberance about babies” — our apparently basic commitment to what I have referred to above as “Reproductive Futurism.”

But when I read it, I thought, well: that's exactly right, isn’t it? I don’t want myself to be repeated exactly through eternity — that sounds fucking horrible, and pointless to boot. Raising my son, it will be my duty to ensure not only his basic survival to adulthood; I also need to give him the strength to be a better person than I’m capable of being. I suppose there’s an element of ego in this — who wouldn't want to raise a child, biological or otherwise, they glowed with pride to even think of? But it’s also in the interests of something bigger than either of us: the human species. If my child can be a better human being than I am, then, well... regardless of what ultimately happens, or ought to happen, to the family — my family's life will have been a justifiable success.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.