Want to Dismantle Capitalism? Abolish the Family

Want to Dismantle Capitalism? Abolish the Family

Want to Dismantle Capitalism? Abolish the Family

Feminist theorist Sophie Lewis’s new book looks at how rethinking pregnancy and the idea of family as forms of labor is central to emancipatory politics.


Arguably the most infamous demand of The Communist Manifesto is the “abolition of the family.” The family, Marx and Engels noted, was where patriarchy and capitalism worked in tandem to produce willing, alienated workers, where women became little more than “instruments of production” for the men who lorded over them. Radical queer politics in the 1960s and ’70s added to their critique of the bourgeois family when activists challenged the heteronormativity of familial relations. That demand, however, has since almost completely vanished from the leftist imaginary.

Sophie Lewis, a feminist theorist and geographer, takes up this forgotten struggle in her work. Her new book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019) specifically links family abolition to a radical reconceptualization of pregnancy itself. The act of carrying a child to term, she insists, is work—labor that has long been exploited and overlooked by the academy—and so is mothering.

By thinking through the logic of commercial surrogacy arrangements, Lewis lays bare the ways motherhood has been weaponized as an ideological construct. She gives us an account of the material conditions—the biological and societal violence—that gestators, or people who are carrying fetuses, have to bear. Her book shows us that the ostensibly feminist objection to surrogacy arrangements underwrites the ossified and alienated familial relations that make capitalism possible. Last month I sat down with her over a cup of tea at The Nation’s offices and talked about why rethinking gestation is central to an emancipatory politics, how we can use surrogacy to subvert oppression, and what kinship beyond possession, beyond capitalism, beyond patriarchy could look like.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Rosemarie Ho

Rosemarie Ho: How did you get started on thinking about surrogacy as a kind of work?

Sophie Lewis: There’s a line in the famous Wages for Housework manifesto that goes, “Every miscarriage is a work accident.” The whole conversation in academia about surrogacy is focused on the reason why the practice exists in the first place, as if the labor that the gestators were doing were separate from the gestating that people do at home. I find it productive to put that question aside, and just look at the workplace. Certain feminists, I think, react to the realities of how babies are sometimes commodities, and how sex has become alienated and for sale, by blaming the people who are working in these industries when in fact the problem is capitalism.

I found myself stating the obvious: Gestation was work already, before it got commodified as commercial surrogacy. So how do we build a politics that bridges these two workplaces, and build solidarity between paid and unpaid gestators?

It’s a central idea to feminism anyway, that mothers aren’t natural entities; they’re making choices to look after this other person. It’s not some sort of mechanical, automatic process; it’s a practice of grounding sociality. Mothers nurture, but they also kill and abuse their wards. That’s why it’s so valuable to denaturalize the mother-child bond. To do anything otherwise is to devalue that work. That’s the horizon that I think opens up the space for a revolutionary politics.

RH: But to be more specific, how does surrogacy as a praxis generate space for a revolutionary politics? What does it mean to demand “full surrogacy now”?

SL: Currently, the whole logic of surrogacy is to excise the surrogate from the family picture; the whole point of being a surrogate is that you are never really there. That’s something I want to challenge, the idea that babies belong to anyone—the idea that the product of gestational labor gets transferred as property to a set of people. That is actually one of the revolutionary horizons that the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers advocated for: how children should belong to no one but themselves.

There’s a wonderful theorist, Indiana Seresin, who very helpfully gave me the phrase “impossible concept” to describe how surrogacy functions in my book. If everything is surrogacy, the whole question of original or “natural” relationships falls by the wayside. In that sense, what surrogacy means is standing in for one another, caring for one another, making one another. It’s a word to describe the very actual but also utopian fact that we are the makers of one another, and we can learn to act like it. Full surrogacy in that sense is a demand for real surrogacy: a commune, a proliferation of relations rather than a continuation of a logic, Surrogacy™, that is about propping up the propertarian, biogenetic, nuclear private household that is our main kinship model.

RH: That’s a really interesting way to rephrase the stakes of your project—that full surrogacy can be conceived as your call for family abolition, for the broadening of the sphere of relations between people.

SL: It sounds scary, emotionally, when some people hear the phrase “family abolition.” But when we say we want to abolish the family, we’re not talking about taking away the few relationships and infrastructures of love that we have in this world. Of course the private household and the family are where so many of us get the vast majority of nourishment and solace. The question that family abolition is interested in is whether that’s good enough, whether that’s a good thing—that there is such a scarcity involved. We know that the nuclear private household is where the overwhelming majority of abuse can happen. And then there’s the whole question of what it is for: training us up to be workers, training us to be inhabitants of a binary-gendered and racially stratified system, training us not to be queer.

The crucial thing to understand is that motherhood is a very powerful ideological edifice. It’s not that there isn’t a massive hormonal kick that comes about after [conception], particularly during postpartum. There are endocrinal factors that make us high from the experience of caring for our neonates. But there is also a hell of a lot of ideology that makes us unable to comprehend that someone might not actually like mothering, and makes us unable to speak in slightly moderate terms about figures like Yoselyn Ortega, the nanny who killed the two babies in her care in Manhattan; that is the same case that inspired Leila Slimani’s book The Perfect Nanny. Even just talking about that excess, that monstrosity at the edge of maternal life, is surprisingly uncomfortable for our culture.

RH: Speaking of Leila Slimani, you refer to literature a lot in your work, bringing in authors as wide-ranging as Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Maggie Nelson, and Elena Ferrante. I was wondering how the literary imaginary informed your theorizing?

SL: I’m an interpreter of texts more than a critic, more than anything else, I would say, even as I bring utopianism and love to my dismantlings. It’s the inverse of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore says—“abolition isn’t just absence…. Abolition is figuring out how to work with people to make something rather than figuring out how to erase something.” Sometimes you need the poets to help you articulate something concretely. You need Sylvia Plath describing the process of giving birth as a “black force blotting out [her] brain and utterly possessing [her]”; you need Elena Ferrante describing motherhood as being “a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves.” It’s a terrible metaphor, but you need those words to help you put the meat on the bones, as it were, of a labor theory of a two-directional symbiogenesis, the “labor does you” [from Maggie Nelson] insight that I try to grapple with.

RH: What strikes me about a book like yours, which is so vested in a utopian vision, is: How do you figure the tension between this repro-utopianism and more policy-oriented calls to action?

SL: The immediate-term prescriptions that my book implies are things to support in the here and now, such as the fact that gestational surrogates in India ought to be in charge of their own industry and seize the means of their (re)production. States should immediately meet gestational workers’ demands for more control over their obstetrics, higher pay, and the right to remain involved, if they wish, with client families. But I want to move beyond the state ultimately; to that end, it would be useful to implement a sense that it is normal for us to think about babies as made by many people. I would support policies that expand the number of people who are socially and legally recognized as central, fundamental players in the constitution of a person. Obviously this speaks to things like expanding hospital visitation rights, and so on and so forth.

One of the big political issues right now is one of family separation at the border. I’m curious about what it would change, and what it would take away, to talk about it as people being separated from one another at the border. We don’t necessarily have to reinstate the sanctity of the family as the response to why it’s a problem to put babies in cages. Like, it’s a bad idea to put people in cages! It’s a bad idea to separate young people from older people who are caring for them. When we are trying to extend direct care and solidarity to people who are crossing the border, sometimes it is necessary to articulate their right to be here, and to be together, in a language that is about the inherent worth and deservingness of the family. There are immediate consequences to choices like that, such as throwing under the bus people trying to come on their own. I’m not into these kinds of calculuses particularly, even as I see the need to do them sometimes.

RH: What kinds of roles do you envision nation-states playing in more equitable transnational surrogacy arrangements?

SL: Nation-states are faced with a real headache when it comes to surrogacy, which revolves around questions of citizenship, such as when a baby is gestated in a Kenyan, or Indian, or Mexican womb, but is created from Swedish, or Californian, or French gametes. All of these legislatures have different rules about what a mother is, and what a person’s citizenship derives from; these tiny infants are jamming up geopolitics in really interesting ways. I suppose you could get into the nitty-gritty, and I would say things like, “No borders! Give all the citizenships to everyone!” Particularly the surrogates who in the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 were airlifted out by the Israeli Air Force but not given the right to enter Israeli soil—because it was the Israeli fetuses inside them who were being rescued.

Ultimately the international solidarities that we need to build are not going to be facilitated by most nation-states. We should make demands of states, but the conversation I want to push is the fact that the fetus has a relationship with the gestator, and that if the fetus is to have any kind of rights, the gestator has to have them. I would say there should be nothing given to a fetus that isn’t given to the gestator, so in that sense, commissioning parents would have to adopt their Indian surrogate.

RH: We’ve been circling around the contributions of black and brown feminist scholars you’ve been bringing up in your work, and in our conversation, like Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Saidiya Hartman. How do you see your work engaging with the specifically racialized dimensions of social reproduction, and with history?

SL: One idea that Alexis Pauline Gumbs ventures is that black motherhood was always queer. That, of course, is a completely different position to be occupying when you make progeny biologically—to continue a material relationship with ancestors, with survivors of genocidal practices and of dispossession—than what white settlers like myself occupy. The family abolitionism that I hope I have made legible owes everything to black feminist family abolitionists, who despite having been denied kinship, nevertheless decided not to invest in the nuclear private household. They wanted to proliferate relationships; there’s a tradition of polymaternalism, and a notion that family doesn’t mean what it means in the bourgeois settler imaginary when you’re talking about black life. The kinds of family abolition I’m invested in goes back to that tradition of black feminist family abolition, the one that leads Angela Davis to say that the reproductive technologies that were arising in the 1980s is nothing new, that black women have been constituting the white nuclear propertarian household even before chattel slavery. That said, black gestators are at incredibly heightened risk of miscarriage in this country, and black infant mortality is astronomical compared to white infants; it’s an absolutely desperate situation for reproductive justice. It might seem like the abolition of the private household is not a priority, politically, when black gestators are dying in maternity wards, but it’s actually the opposite when you consider (as Hartman shows us) that it was the invention of the “natural” private family household that entrenched the disposability of black life in America.

RH: So what’s next? Where do you see your work extending beyond Full Surrogacy Now?

SL: My new intellectual project has to do with care. I think the term “care” needs quite a bit of refining; I see it used in academia and social production theory as just a thing that will solve everything. I don’t disagree; for example, I think the solution to the climate crisis, in a way, is to reorient the world to privilege care over types of productive industry and consumption. But I also think that we need to stay with the violence, and grapple with the fact that currently existing care is full of abuse. I’d like to talk more about different striations of care—good, less good, bad forms of care.

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