• Why Family Isn’t Everything—And How We Can Create More Liberatory Alternatives

    Sophie Lewis on the Capitalist and Patriarchal Underpinnings of Traditional Family Structures

    Tolstoy famously opened his magnum opus with the truthy formula “All happy families are alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.” It sounds good, concedes Ursula K. Le Guin: “It’s a great first sentence.” So many families are extremely unhappy! And this extreme unhappiness feels unique, because its structural character—like the structure of capitalism—is cunningly obscured from view.

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    In fact, Le Guin suggests, the reverse of Tolstoy’s apothegm is ultimately closer to the truth. She knows of what she speaks, having herself grown up “in a family that on the whole seems to have been happier than most.” She finds it “false—an intolerable cheapening of reality—simply to describe it as happy.” To her, the very phrase “happy families” bespeaks a fundamental incuriosity about the nature of happiness, which—under capitalism especially—comes with enormous costs.

    Those who breezily deploy it forget that there is a “whole substructure of sacrifices, repressions, suppressions, choices made or forgone, chances taken or lost, balancings of greater and lesser evils,” at the foundation of familial happiness. They ignore “the tears, the fears, the migraines, the injustices, the censorships, the quarrels, the lies, the angers, the cruelties.”

    Yes, families can be happy, Le Guin maintains, poker-faced and only possibly joking, “for quite a long time—a week, a month, even longer.” The happy families Tolstoy “speaks of so confidently in order to dismiss them as all alike,” though?—“where are they?” What if unhappy families are all alike, in a structural sense, because the family is a miserable way to organize care—whereas happy ones are miraculous anomalies?

    What if unhappy families are all alike, in a structural sense, because the family is a miserable way to organize care—whereas happy ones are miraculous anomalies?

    As a child, I used to play a card game called “Happy Families” with the other members of my far-from-happy nuclear family. The deck was illustrated in 1851. Each set bears a name like Pots, Bun, Dose, and Tape, and has four components: a male head of the household (who plies his trade: painting, baking, doctoring, tailoring), one wife (who helps him), and two children, representing both binary gender options—boy and girl. Dad: may I have Master Bung, the Brewer’s Son? I’d ask, guessing a card I wanted, hidden in my target opponent’s hand. If I had guessed correctly, I claimed the card, with the Bung Boy’s grotesque portrait on it, and then asked for another, and another: Thank you! Now, Mum, may I have Mrs. Grits, the Grocer’s Wife? Much obliged. Now, Mum again: may I have Miss Dip, the Dyer’s Daughter? It was great fun; devilish.

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    I recall the gleeful vindictiveness of the game, above all (or alternatively: droll, powerless dismay). Until one makes an error and cedes control, one is on a roll, imperiously stripping the cards from everyone’s hands in a triumphal progress of family-reunification. Boom, that’s the Boneses complete. It’s their togetherness, I suppose, that makes the happiness. Could it work for us? We, the players, were generationally and gender-apportioned in the same quartet—Dad, Mum, Ben, and me.

    The sensibility in “Happy Families” is refreshingly mocking (the individuals depicted are all daft, nasty, pathetic, ridiculous, vain-looking characters). At the same time, the game evokes a powerful fantasy: every human being is in her cosmically pre-destined place in a perfectly symmetrical genealogical grid. Barbers beget little barbers, who grow up to marry, what else, barbers’ wives, and so they beget more barbers in turn. Each person inherits an economic vocation—the family’s natural business—that presumably harmonizes perfectly with the wider Happy Society’s ecology of useful trades. All the Dips have dye on their happy hands, not just Mr. Dip. All four of the Soots are sooty. And clearly Miss Soot, with her duster, has no thought in her head of ever being something other than the Daughter of the Sweep (except, one day, no doubt, a different dustman’s wife).

    The conflation of the individual and the family is absolute, as is the conflation of the family and the family business. Members of society who do not work are unthinkable within the famous card-deck’s schema. “This is a fantasy of an economy,” to quote what Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh had to say about family ideology in the eighties, “in which the actions of self-seeking ‘economic men’ add up, through the ‘unseen hand’ of the market mechanism, to an optimal pattern of production and consumption.”

    Lo and behold, decades later, in 2021, the best-selling author and economist Emily Oster published The Family Firm, a “data-driven” handbook for “running your family like a business.” Oster’s book unironically assesses the “human resources” dynamics of the private bourgeois home vis-à-vis the wider economy, all the while providing a handy “management” toolkit for the would-be competitive player in today’s fast-paced parenting decisionscape. “How much extra happiness will more money buy you?” Oster proposes asking yourself during a budget meeting. “It’s worth considering not just the number of dollars but the marginal utility of those dollars.”

    ou may, as a parent, decide that happiness lies in working less and spending more time with the kids, but the rationale for this, in Oster’s matrix, still makes its way inexorably back to productivity: “I value that time,” she vouchsafes, “in part to get to hang out with them and, honestly, in part because I do not think anyone else is tough enough on supervising violin practice.”

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    The family is an ideology of work. In the early twenty-first century, as Oster shamelessly details, its credo has become the optimization (via violin-playing and other forms of so-called human capital investment) of a population of high-earning, flexible entrepreneurs. Previously, as we saw, the workers crafted by the family were imagined more along the lines of the trades-guild avatars depicted on the “Happy Families” playing-cards: Mr. Chip or Mr. Bung (a petty bourgeois earner) and his hardworking but unwaged wife and children. Indeed, ever since the European labor movement won the male-breadwinner household for itself in the 1890s, socialists have cleaved to the romantic idea of the working-class “provider” whose dependent nest-mates (grandpa, grandma, woman, brats, unwed sister-in-law) are all happily identified with what he does by way of work.

    Today, Mr. Waitress, in contrast, will probably re-train at least twice—becoming Mr. Tech Support, Mr. Nurse, Mr. Uber Eats, and so on, sometimes all at the same time. In the so-called advanced or overdeveloped economies which academics like to call “feminized” (on account of the higher proportion of female workers employed, but also the traditional “gender”—service, hospitality, support, computing, affect—of the key profit sectors) almost everyone has to try to be a “male breadwinner.”

    From this precarious vantagepoint, there is something attractive, pseudo-utopian even, about the fictive Miss Soot’s perfect absence of anxiety about who she is. To be a “working family,” an artisanal team ordained by the cosmos itself, is a deeply seductive idea; an evocation of security, of harmony, and “right reproduction.” No wonder consumers, voters and pundits love the notion of a “family business,” a “mom ’n’ pop shop,” despite clear evidence that workers’ wages, benefits and working conditions are worse, not better, within such establishments.

    To be a “working family,” an artisanal team ordained by the cosmos itself, is a deeply seductive idea; an evocation of security, of harmony, and “right reproduction.”

    Emily Oster might be an exception to this claim, but it seems to me that capitalist societies, once they’d invented family values (that is, work values), on the whole failed to advance them with a consistently straight face. Everybody knows that not everybody (to put it mildly) experiences the family as a blissful state; that not everybody (to put it mildly) loves their work. Some of us have always known.

    To be sure, humorless, straightforward, quasi-fascist paeans to the heteronormative hearth and the aspirational industriousness it breeds exist in great numbers, from sentimental Victorian fiction to patriotic Hollywood thrillers and, increasingly, Christian-nationalist policy platforms. But an overwhelming amount of equally mainstream art and literature is also about family ideology’s “discontents.” Anti-family politics isn’t unthinkable, in other words—it’s everywhere! Art and writing about family life is usually at the very least satirical, and often downright dark. Think of King Lear, Tristram Shandy, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Madame Bovary, Beloved, Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Simpsons, or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, to name only the first (forgive me) “household names” that come to my mind.

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    Realist and gothic traditions alike view family as a field of howling boredom, aching lack, unhealed trauma, unspeakable secrets, buried hurts, wronged ghosts, “knives out,” torture attics, and peeling wallpaper. Yet in “cli fi” and related representations of national emergencies and the apocalypse, authors insist on family as the core relationship we will need to rely on, when all else is stripped away.

    It bears spelling out that satire does not by itself unsettle power, and probably sometimes offers the consolations of “relatability” instead of inciting audiences to mount a less-tolerant response to what they see. Yet the fact that culture routinely questions the morality of work—and shines a light on the nihilism of the precept “family first”—matters. It matters that admitting how disappointing family life is—how irksome, unjust, and exhausting at best, and crushingly traumatic at worst—represents one of the dominant established tones of the classical novel, family cartoon, drama, sitcom, and memoir.

    Sure enough, familiality and coupledom are sometimes satirized so subtly one can barely tell. Such moves are in themselves canonical: the happily-ever-after “script” subjected to heart-felt critiques by the characters in a novel or mini-series, only to then unfold anyway (to the characters’ delighted surprise and bemused embarrassment!) for a plot resolution of maybe-this-time-it’ll-be-different quiescence. “Down with love” is never the conclusion of a narrative: it is, however, sometimes the view espoused by our heroes at the beginning.

    The literarily self-aware characters in a Sally Rooney novel know all of this. When one semi-serious answer to the question Beautiful World, Where Are You turns out to be: in the bosom of the conventional family you have decided to form with your childhood sweetheart, there is no doubt: the novel is trolling us! Yet readers still consume the experience of political and existential anguish melting away as Alice and Felix and Eileen and Simon stop worrying about capitalism and embrace their desire to marry.

    Genres of family critique other than the bourgeois novel do exist, but they aren’t necessarily pretty. I’m thinking of the medium crawling with moms turned murderers, blood-spattered dining-rooms, incest revenges, and homes set ablaze: Hereditary, The Shining, Society, Goodnight Mommy, Psycho, The Stepfather, Us. Critical cinema scholars have long identified a latently insurrectionary desire at play in horror movies, especially those that depict attacks (often from within) on the propertied white family, the patriarchal regime of housework, or the colonial homestead. Books like Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film argue that violent and scary movie-making is, more often than not, a popular vehicle for mass anti-family desire.

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    Think of the menacing domestic interiors, hostile kitchen appliances, creepy children, murderous kin, and claustrophobic hellscapes of your favorite horror flick. In slasher, home-invasion, and feminist horror canons, the narrative pretends to worry nationalistically about external threats to the family while, in fact, indulging every conceivable fantasy of dismembering and setting fire to it from within. From gore to so-called “psychological” horror, diverse genres openly implicate the family-form in the tortures it is enduring. In these movies, the suppressed, disavowed violence of the home is returning home. The monster is coming from inside the house.

    Capitalist societies, once they’d invented family values (that is, work values), on the whole failed to advance them with a consistently straight face.

    Wow, who am I calling monsters—dads and moms and great-aunt Trish? No: family abolition is not “puerile” politics (albeit children must be on the front lines of imagining it). Family abolition does not expect a state of perfect, uninterrupted, universal happiness. Rather, I would ask you to flip the script and consider that it is the family that is unrealistic and utopian. The family, right now, is supposed to make everybody happy. We are all supposed to be avatars of our little biological team of competitive social reproduction. When we are delinquent, we are a burden on the family: an experience which, ideally, reforms us by making us remember (like it’s a good thing) that family is all we’ve got. Even when we are exceptional, we are, in a sense, chips off our biogenetic clan’s block; something for blood relations to be proud of.

    Modern familialism is not so far off from the psychology of Miss Soot as we might like to think. It’s as though we’ve forgotten that her happiness, like her very name, is a self-conscious fiction. To make the flesh-and-blood Misses Soot of this world happy—truly happy—we have to accept that human beings are actualized neither in work nor in reproduction. We have to find out one another’s real names and struggle together against the system that makes arbitrary data on birth certificates shape people’s fates. It should be elementary socialism, not some fringe eccentricity of queer ultra-leftists, to be striving toward a regime of cohabitation, collective eating, leisure, eldercare, and childrearing in which no one, to quote M. E. O’Brien, “is bound together violently any longer,” like sets in a ghoulish deck of playing-cards.

    I’d wager that you, too, can imagine something better than the lottery that drops a neonate arbitrarily among one or two or three or four individuals (of a particular class) and keeps her there for the best part of two decades without her consent, making her wholly beholden to them for her physical survival, legal existence, and economic identity, and forcing her to be the reason they give away their lives in work. I’d wager that you, too, can imagine something better than the norm that makes a prison for adults—especially women—out of their own commitment to children they love.

    Together, we can invent accounts of human “nature,” and ways of organizing social reproduction, that are not just economic contracts with the state, or worker training programs in disguise. Together, we can establish consensus-based modes of transgenerational cohabitation, and large-scale methods for distributing and minimizing the burdens of life’s work.

    Together, we can establish consensus-based modes of transgenerational cohabitation, and large-scale methods for distributing and minimizing the burdens of life’s work.

    Even then, I seriously doubt we will have found the blueprints for happiness. Ursula K. Le Guin’s question still gives me tingles, though: those happy families Tolstoy was so uninterested in, where are they? Contrary to the trendy cynicism and faux-radical realism of the canonical litterateurs who considered misery to be somehow truer than happiness, Le Guin treats happiness as the rarer, more interesting, more pressing, challenging collective artform. Family abolition, she might agree with me, is an important vehicle for such curiosity about—and desire for—happiness.

    Those of us assigned to so-called reproductive labors on this earth know especially well that happiness is a clumsy art, a Sisyphean effort, a messy choreography that, by definition, cannot leave anybody out. No doubt, a world in which most members of most households are deeply and truly happy most of the time lies mostly in the future, part of a yet-to-be-written history.

    It feels like the horizon toward which speculative fictions like Le Guin’s are reaching. But like all utopias, too, that world already nestles latently in the present. It has its wispy sprouts in nooks and crannies wherever people, against all odds, are seeking to devise liberatory and queer—which is to say, anti-property—modes of care. (The word “queer” has widely been emptied of its communist meanings, yet here and there, and certainly in this writer’s heart, it still carries some abolitionist freight, signifying resistance to capitalism’s reproductive institutions: marriage, private property, patriarchy, the police, school.) Queerly, then, the best care-givers already seek to unmake the kind of possessive love Alexandra Kollontai called “property love” in their relations with children, older relatives, and partners. The comradeliest mother-ers already seek to deprivatize care.

    So, in a strict sense it may be true, as Michael Hardt asserts, that the production of real happiness is doomed under current conditions: “only once property love is abolished can we begin to invent a new love, a revolutionary love, a red love.” But it also seems indisputable that many of us are getting on with the abolishing.


    Excerpted from Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation by Sophie Lewis. Copyright © 2022. Available from Verso Books.

    Sophie Lewis
    Sophie Lewis
    Sophie Lewis is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, teaching courses for the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Her first book was Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, and her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, Boston Review, n+1, the London Review of Books and Salvage. Sophie studied English, Politics, Environment and Geography at Oxford, the New School, and Manchester University, and is now an unpaid visiting scholar at the Feminist, Queer and Transgender Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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