Covid-19 Is Straining the Concept of the Family. Let’s Break It.

Covid-19 Is Straining the Concept of the Family. Let’s Break It.

Covid-19 Is Straining the Concept of the Family. Let’s Break It.

The care and love we extend to one another can no longer be confined to house-sized pockets.


Since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, the realities of both the human body’s interconnectedness and private property’s deathliness have become inescapable. Doctors in the before-time were already known, on occasion, to prescribe food, money, companionship, abuse-free shelter, or a holiday from housewifehood to their patients. Today, however, the concepts of reproductive justice, family inequality, compulsory domesticity, and the “right to the city” have taken on even more force, as officials instruct populations to maintain “social distancing” (from everyone… except family) and to “shelter in place” (in whose place? Your family’s).

Let us briefly survey the scene. Abusers everywhere are battering and molesting their partners and young relatives in the privacy of their properties with increased impunity, since it is more difficult than ever, physically and financially, to flee a home. As with AIDS in the 1980s, the itinerant houseless, the sexually deviant, and the unconventionally housed are once again the object of public suspicion. Meanwhile, a huge proportion of households in the United States are either crowded or under-inhabited, even empty. The pathways of love and care-labor (paid and unpaid) running between them, were they to be diagrammed, would resemble an impenetrable web.

But now, with urban movement so constrained, the already desperately limited legal frameworks of marital union and biogenetic “next of kin” (which are used to gatekeep hospital visits, triage the dead, determine custody, calculate life insurance, and allocate inheritance) are straining at the seams. There is no justice in these rules, which keep chosen kin from seeing one another, treat children like property, and shore up wealth (or poverty) within a class—which is not to say there is a quick fix.

Finally, the interruption of global supply chains in the care and service economies is rubbing the classed and racialized character of capitalism’s division of reproductive labor in the global bourgeoisie’s unwilling face. Oblivious, a clutch of well-heeled white British feminists, working from home, have loudly asserted their feminist right to the labor of their cleaners.

The wealthy everywhere, not only in the UK, have visibly come to the startled realization that the private nuclear household is a fantasy of universality, propped up either by the mutual aid of “othermothers,” or by an extractive hierarchy of outsourced wife-work. We have hence been treated to “critiques” of the nuclear family that pay mildly rueful homage to the modern “village” (as in, “It takes a village to raise a child”) and yearn for the labor of the subordinate villagers—the aunties, in-laws, cooks, and paid cleaners the woman of the house must now do without.

The principle that a child has only one or two real parents goes unchallenged, as does the principle that people should live in atomized car-dependent boxes, each kitted out with its own kitchen and laundry, with extremely few companions, ideally linked by some fiction of “blood” or biological identity. We can do better than these non-critiques. What the unfolding of Covid-19 in the United States makes more palpable, among other things, is that the family—as the property logic and mode of social reproduction central to capitalism—is killing us.

Editors have been asking me to tell what might happen next. Could 2020 mark the beginning of the end of class society, via a perpetuation of the riotous nationwide insurgency currently underway for black lives, a general strike that gives rise to a giant archipelago of protest kitchens that, in turn, leads to the overthrow of exploitation, and the founding of a million co-housing projects, co-ops, and communes? Or will all the cleaners, nannies, carers, wet nurses, babysitters, gardeners, sex workers, cooks, au pairs, and chauffeurs move in with their employers, adding their names to the property deeds, the car insurance documents, the children’s birth certificates? Will children themselves advance their liberation, emancipating themselves in the name of chosen survival, and together develop their vision of democratic transgenerational cohabitation? Could a vast new federated institution of social care spring up—a crèche for people of all ages, perhaps—devoted to the principle that we are the makers of one another, and we can learn collectively to act like it?

Amid the turmoil of Covid, unsurprisingly, oracular thinkers of the home and household are suddenly in high demand. I have received a dozen requests myself, for comment on the future of domestic arrangements, post-pandemic. This is because, in March 2019, the leftist publishing house Verso Books launched my book Full Surrogacy Now, a call for “the gestational commune,” which I hoped might contribute to a revival of queer utopianism inspired by the Marxist rallying cry “Abolish the family.”

Indeed, for several years now, together with a number of other trans-liberationist Marxists and mothers—notably Michelle O’Brien, Kate Doyle-Griffiths, Madeline Lane-McKinley, and Jules Joanne Gleeson—I have been doing my best to raise the profile again of that old dream “family abolition,” to clarify what it is and isn’t, and to restore the private (repro-normative or patriarchal) nuclear household to its proper place as the principal object of feminist and queer radical critique. And here, critique really means critique: recognition that the family as we know it is, simultaneously, an anti-queer factory for producing productive workers, rife with power asymmetries and violence, and the sole source of love, care, and protection against the brutalization of the police, the market, work, and racism, many of us have got.

Our idea is to rethink presently existing family forms; this means, to quote O’Brien, “preservation and emancipation of the genuine love and care proletarian people have found with each other in the midst of hardship: the fun and joy of eroticism; the intimacy of parenting and romance.” As Sophie Silverstein clarifies in openDemocracy, “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.” The goal is “a society where mutual nurturance and support are not dependent on a genetic lottery.”

The effect of our efforts on the culture has been difficult to gauge. For my part, I was most surprised not by the antipathy but by the surprise that greeted our immodest proposal, in all but a few tiny pockets of the left. In the 19th century, as well as the sex-liberationist 1970s, to call for abolishing the family in favor of the classless poly-maternal commune was a common anticapitalist practice. In 1892, for example, Karl Kautsky was vexed that “one of the most widespread prejudices against socialism rests upon the notion that it proposes to abolish the family.” The extent of contemporary socialists’ institutional amnesia about this controversy, via the quashing of the radical imagination in the ’80s, is something I had underestimated.

Yet, besides incredulity, ridicule, and heated opposition (some of it from the white-nationalist far right), the message of “feminism against the family” has also faced a more insidious response. Namely, there has been a centrist embrace of a superficial critique of the nuclear family; this recuperation of supposedly “anti-family” discourse utterly defangs our tenets. It’s important to identify what this new strain of nuclear-family critique actually calls for—and why it isn’t enough.

There is a folksy sense in which nobody can disagree with the “village” line. To be sure, any discussion of the blackmail, overwork, and scarcity that private households breed, as well as of the falsity of their claim to being autonomous organisms, is a good thing in my book. Care-labor is always flowing into a home from myriad outside sources. In a Slate article on parenting under Covid titled “The Nuclear Family Is Not Enough,” one journalist astutely observed that “the irony of the American nuclear family ideal, so near and dear to advertisers and politicians, is that having a kid usually teaches you that it’s not real.” In The Guardian, soon after, another agreed: “This pandemic has exposed the myth of the nuclear family,” even as “we have gone back to the ground zero notion” that it exists.

All right. But who is this “we”? I agree that “the nuclear family” is more a disciplinary image (an image of self-reproducing whiteness) than it is a lived reality. In fact, I sometimes give Full Family Now as an alternative title for my book, for this reason, and talk about “the dialectic of real families against The Family”—in particular, of colonized kin against the colonial state. However, it is one thing to notice that what one had thought were supports—commodified and not—propping up one’s family are in fact integral to its functioning. It is another to recognize that this disciplinary image elevates some lives while devaluing others, and therefore needs to be abolished.

We can look to the expected places to see the human cost of government health departments’ making a norm of the private nuclear household: to working-class and sex-working communities, queer and trans communities, and black communities, where children tend to circulate between homes in “constellations.” In The Nation, Dani McLain recently outlined how black co-parents are “adapting self-quarantine guidelines to their own situations.” Nevertheless, black Americans are by far the hardest hit by the pandemic, and the most violently brutalized by the police for defying stay-at-home directives. The nuclear family is rarer in black America, partly because it does not support black thriving, having been explicitly installed in America (as Hortense Spillers showed decades ago in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”) to distinguish whites from chattel slaves, for white supremacist purposes. During this 21st century pandemic, then, the very source of marginalized groups’ survival in the wake of slavery—their counter-familial kinning strategies and generational overlap across multiple homes—seems to have confounded the biopolitical rationality of the medical authorities, leading to institutional neglect, and a tragic body count.

If the commentariat has a new penchant for criticizing the nuclear family, in most cases these criticisms are still animated by a structurally anti-black, no doubt unconscious contempt for forms of “chosen family” that eschew marriage (rather than, say, weaving a web of civic relationships around a proper marital-genealogical core that can ensure “prosperity”). In other words, some pundits are now slamming “the nuclear family,” carefully defined as a single-generational living unit (rather than a property logic)—the better to guard against more radical contestations of bourgeois reproduction. In February 2020, for example, The Atlantic published a 9,000-word feature by David Brooks, titled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” The piece is a case study in marriage fundamentalism, offering lip service to “forged” kinships among tribes in Micronesia but ultimately making a litany of unwarranted excuses for the “chaos” of contemporary black family life. “If the U.S. returned to the marriage rates of 1970, child poverty would be 20 percent lower,” Brooks avers, as though marriage were what makes children poor.

Brooks’s article mounts a plea for “our” (implicitly white) civilization to return to “the extended family,” based on marriage, for capitalism’s sake. Americans in general became individualistic in the leftist ’60s, he contends; consequently, they are nowadays leery of losing their independence in wedlock and “less willing to sacrifice self for the sake of the family.” He wishes his peers would stop being so hypocritical and stand up for the marriage-centric “philosophy of family life” they clearly harbor in their souls: “Highly educated progressives may talk a tolerant game on family structure when speaking about society at large, but they have extremely strict expectations for their own families.” But lest you detect any moralism at work, Brooks explains toward the end of his piece that he (and, presumably, his wife) were long part of a “forged family” in D.C., in that they participated in dinners organized by their friends Kathy and David’s nonprofit, All Our Kids Inc. While the predictable paleoconservative feathers were ruffled by “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”—the only real point of contention being that title—the outpouring of admiration for it across the political spectrum has been copious.

In a similarly revanchist opinion in The Washington Post, for example—positioned under the heading, “The coronavirus might break the nuclear family. That wouldn’t be a bad thing”—a writer declared this April that “Americans should reclaim the joys, advantages, burdens and pains of multigenerational living.” Brooks himself endorsed this nostalgia for the time when “sisters-in-law shouted greetings across the street at each other from their porches.”

Let us not spend our energies trying to develop “a progressive philosophy of family life.” The ideology of the family cannot, without exploding, stretch so wide that it encompasses, with equal dignity, the vast tapestry of human kinning. While the middle and upper classes may be experiencing local coronavirus lockdowns as a kind of loose, unevenly distributed form of house arrest requiring think pieces in praise of “extended family,” many indigenous, poor, unemployed, and working-class people are—by necessity, as well as by choice—pooling their resources, opening their homes to the houseless, forming home-schooling hubs and mini-crèches, and holding their bosses to ransom.

With every act of Covid-era solidarity among strangers, with every expropriation of a hotel to shelter the evicted or the sick, every anti-deportation action, every prison protest, it becomes clearer: “Family values” are not what’s called for in this situation. “Treat your neighbors as family” is a popular and well-meaning sentiment (it is also the slogan of David Brooks’s “social fabric project,” Weave™). It happens to be utterly wrong. If we want to make it into the next century as a species worthy of the name “human,” we will have to do much better than that. Be it as a biologistic ideology, a fiction of political economy, or a metaphor, it is blindingly obvious: Family is failing us. If anything, after Covid, we must never treat each other “like family” again. We must treat each other, instead, with all the tenderness and responsibility due to strangers or, dare I say, comrades.

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