“Family abolition.” It’s a phrase that, for many people, likely conjures up images of forceful separations of family members, legal penalties for certain relationships, or other authoritarian measures designed to tear us from our loved ones. In Family Abolition: The Communizing of Care (Pluto Press, 2023), this isn’t what author M.E. O’Brien is desiring at all. Instead, the situation I’ve briefly outlined is a much better descriptor of the status quo that O’Brien seeks to abolish.
O’Brien begins her new book with a thorough discussion of the complicated realities of nuclear family life in our current society. Nuclear families are sites of deep violence through acts of physical harm, withholding of basic necessities, and identity policing, while simultaneously being sites of deep care through the provision of basic necessities, love, and social acceptance. Our families, while idiosyncratic in some ways, are defined through the institutions of the state and markets. Thus, O’Brien asks us to see beyond the binary distinctions of “public” and “private” life.
She does this through an elaboration of the historical construction of the family, charting a course through industrialization, slavery, colonialism, and queer repression before returning to the present. The story begins with the construction of the bourgeoisie family as an institution to maintain access to wealth. The bourgeoisie family differed from the aristocratic family in that it was contracting: smaller units to maintain wealth through inheritance, purity rather than decadence. At the same time and in contrast to the bourgeoisie family were the conditions of the industrial working class family. These families were characterized by child labor, early mortality, subpar sanitation conditions, and an overall lack of kinship. The bourgeoisie moralistically defined themselves in opposition to the conditions of the industrial working class.
As the bourgeoisie looked to expand their markets abroad through colonialism, they exported the family form in order to engineer social control. This took on two main forms: encouraging settlers to settle with and construct their families, and the genocidal restructuring of indigenous kinship arrangements. Naturally, indigenous and Black populations found ways of resisting/expanding the family, and O’Brien gets into that history as well.
Jumping forward, and in the “Red Decade” of the 1960’s – 1970’s, working class families were seeking reforms to achieve a form of parity with bourgeoisie families. These reforms, and similar reforms in nominally socialist states like the Soviet Union, helped to pave the way for more people to access the form of the family first envisioned by the bourgeoisie. However, the tearing apart of social welfare that coincided with neoliberal economies in the 80’s lead to a gradual destruction of working class families’ abilities to resemble the bourgeoisie form. With life expectancy decreasing, reports of child labor on the rise, and many households needing multiple incomes, our families are now starting to resemble the families of the old industrial working class.
What solutions does O’Brien offer us? Drawing from Charles Fourier and communization theory as well as her own experiences in moments of social insurgency, O’Brien envisions what social reproduction can look like when the existing order breaks down. Most specifically, O’Brien invokes Fourier’s concept of the phalanx: a unit of social reproduction numbering 1,600 in which various forms of care work are distributed, and love and desire flow freely. O’Brien’s vision of communist social reproduction is clear and incisive while also leaving open room for possibilities, emergence, and play.
Having just read her previous work, Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune: 2052-2072 in collaboration with Eman Abdelhadi, I got the sense that O’Brien is expressing the same sort of utopian desire but in a different format. Conceptualizing restructured social reproduction through both fiction and political treatise is a handy skill, one that allows O’Brien the ability to lean on different elements of her vision in their different treatments. If you haven’t read it yet, Everything for Everyone is an excellent companion piece for Family Abolition, especially if you reach the end of the book and are wondering what these ideas might look like in practice.
Speaking of utopian desire though, if there are any critiques one might levy with O’Brien’s theorizing, one might argue that she focuses too much attention on the distant future: on utopias not yet able to be realized. This argument invokes the question, “People are struggling right now, what are we to do?”
I would respond to this critique in two ways. First, O’Brien is pointing to the imminent necessity to radically alter social reproduction (and yes, to abolish the family) right now. She points to various communes and insurgent movements who have had varying degrees of success in altering social reproduction in the recent past. She implores us to ask, “Why not us, why not now?”
Secondly, I would respond to this critique by reminding the critiquer that we can’t expect any of our radical dreamers to have all of the answers. If O’Brien isn’t speaking to a situation or experience that’s relevant to you, you can find someone else who is. We shouldn’t look at Family Abolition: Communizing of Care as the only or final word on family abolition. Instead, we can appreciate what O’Brien has given us for what it is – a thorough (but not complete) history of the developments of the family as a social and political structure, and a proposal for an alternative.
We are living through a period of escalating crisis, and relying exclusively on biological kinship will not provide enough support for us to survive or to push for desperately needed changes. We must come together and care for one another outside the bounds of the family. As O’Brien so excellently lays out, our future depends on it.
Renya is an anarchist organizer, writer, and therapist operating in Philadelphia, PA, USA. In their various forms of work they are interested in expanding networks of care, undermining ideological hegemony, and telling stories. They practice as a therapist and produce YouTube videos under the name Come Together Counseling, seeking to integrate their values and practices.