The idea of family abolition may invoke visions of violent interventions into the loving and caring homes that some of us are lucky enough to have. Where its proponents are really coming from, however, is to argue for a society where mutual nurturance and support are not dependent on a genetic lottery. This is not merely about pointing out that a disconcerting number of homes are not actually safe places but hold acute threats of violence particularly to the women who live there. Instead, if we can learn anything from the experiences that Covid-19 has unleashed, it is that the linked ideologies of the home, the nuclear family and neoliberal individual responsibility are ill-equipped to provide the care that we are all dependent on.
In Women and the Politics of Class, Johanna Brenner and Nancy Holmstrom put this point concisely. We all want “kinship, love, and ‘good things to eat’”. It’s just that the family as we currently know it is not necessarily the best way to satisfy those desires. More importantly, the family assumes central responsibility to provide for these needs in a society that fails to do so. Specifically, various authors such as Agnes Heller have argued that capitalism explicitly produces needs it cannot satisfy. Rather than disparaging the things that people who defend the family in its current form want to preserve, Brenner and Holmstrom want to build political momentum to extend “the values now located exclusively in family life – solidarity, respect, and commitment to others’ development – across a society [which] requires the elimination of ‘the family’ in its meaning as a special place for those values.”
The nuclear family does not just hold the promise of fulfilling needs of love and kinship, but as an institution it is built on intersecting racism, sexism, and homophobia. As Melinda Cooper points out, for example, welfare restructuring in the United States explicitly enforced a particular model of the married nuclear family that would exclude African-American single mothers from receiving benefits. Defending the “monogamous, heterosexual, many-children family” is therefore not a neutral act of defending the right to a safe and cozy home but is more often than not tied up in other conservative political goals. Thinking about organizing intimacy and care beyond the family is less about taking away safety and coziness than it is about extending those very same conditions to everyone regardless of how they live and love.
If the family is supposed to be a haven in a heartless world, what kind of world would be so heartless as to require it? It is here that we need to start thinking about the family in the context of the individualism and precarity that neoliberalism is exacerbating. In their manifesto, Feminism for the 99%, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Battacharya, and Nancy Fraser point towards the imperative of individual responsibility on the back of which many states have carried out neoliberal privatization and deregulation of welfare and care services. “In some cases,” they argue, “it has marketized public services, turning them into direct profit streams: in others, it has shunted them back to individual families, forcing them – and especially the women within them – to bear the entire burden of care.”
Societies which rely on the fact that the family has to be the only site of loving and caring relationships are inherently unequal and undermine solidarity. The family then becomes oppressive because leaving it is made harder and harder which undermines the formal equalities that Western democracies pride themselves on. At the same time, precariously employed migrant workers bear the brunt of the material and cultural devaluing of caring labor beyond the family.
Thinking about family abolition in the time of a global health crisis puts its finger in exactly this wound carved out by our need for care and neoliberal precarity. In the Netherlands, for example, the Dutch prime minister has called on his citizens to act like responsible “grown-ups” as we all participate in what he has dubbed an “intelligent lockdown”. This rhetoric references a particular kind of citizen who is able-bodied and invulnerable. This is the person who in normal times would show up to work even if they have a cold, because to be responsible in this context is really to be unable to afford staying home from work when sick because bills keep piling up and children need to be fed. Now when showing up to work is not possible at all, this potentially challenges business as usual. However, this is disavowed, for example when all the government does is to suggest compensating loss of income through the closing of the service sector merely by taking out more loans, which has been the official recommendation has been for students.
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Apparently in direct contradiction to the organized refusal of responsibility for care and mutual support, many European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, or France, have seen the military intervening in emergency activities to address the pandemic. We need to, urgently, question the desirability of increased police and military presence in our streets and what this means for communities who are already inordinately vulnerable to their violence.
At the same time, what does it mean that the government can, if it really wants to, prioritize care by giving the responsibility to such a central institution? This reversal of priorities is ostensibly the result of a state of emergency and the re-allocation of resources from the military to healthcare may not have been necessary without the aggressive privatization of healthcare facilities that the Netherlands pursued at the end of the last century. Simultaneously, however it may provide the possibility to visualize a society where care and mutual aid are deemed equally, or preferable more, important than military interventions at the borders of the European Union or in the conflict zones that continue to remind us every day of the violence of European colonial exploitation.
In Full Surrogacy Now, Sophie Lewis makes the argument that apparent changes in family structures through the advent of commercial surrogacy don’t actually signal a fundamental reversal of the rules of the family but expose the way the apparently natural family unit has always been technologically and economically mediated. Without taking over the economic, physical, and emotional violence that often accompanies surrogacy, Lewis suggests that we take it as a starting point to rethink responsibility for care from the perspective of mutual aid and comradeship instead of supposedly natural kin.
If we can learn anything from this crisis that isn’t how to bake banana bread, then it is perhaps that we need to rethink care beyond relegating it to outdated and inadequate family structures and precariously employed workers. Instead of seeing the current moment as a fundamental shift we should focus on how it makes hyper-visible the way we have all already been dependent on each other and how many of the systems that get defended in the name of family love and individual responsibility were really already failing many of us before. Maybe the way Covid-19 has forced a reversal in responsibility that leads uniformed men, instead of (only) wives and nurses, to coordinate and administer care, can help us envision a different kind of society that perpetrates less violence than military interventions and privatization both, in their owns ways, enact.