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The Family: In and Against
The ‘depressing thing about the Christmas season’, Eve Sedgwick writes in ‘How To Bring Your Kids Up Gay’, ‘is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice.’ It’s true: the John Lewis Christmas advert; Boris Johnson’s attempts to ‘save’ Christmas; the endless question of where and with whom one is spending the day; the trains at King’s Cross and Paddington packed with young professionals heading home to the provinces; the emails from the local council promoting family activities in the festive season. In all of this, the family comes to stand in for Christmas and Christmas for the family.
In 2021, as I half-watched Mrs Doubtfire and Mary Poppins with my own family, one eye on social media, I quipped to my sister that all the films on television at Christmas were about restoring the fantasy of the nuclear family through outsourcing social reproduction. She rolled her eyes. Why are you like this? When everyone is speaking in one voice – when all of the institutions line up – the suffocating ubiquity of the family-as-ideology presses against the intimate reality of our own blood ties. Why indeed?
Some of the Left cannot help but chime in with this saccharine holiday harmony. When the publisher Verso used the Marxist-feminist slogan ‘abolish the family’ in its online marketing, a section of left Twitter – those aligned with social democracy – erupted into a paranoid defence of the family. This ‘normie shitstorm’, to use Richard Seymour’s phrase, was peculiarly persistent, outlasting the usual twelve-hour Twitter cycle, to go on for several days.
As Seymour observes, much of the outrage seemed obstinately ignorant of the long history of Marxist-feminist writings on the family – notably the 1960s and 1970s critiques of the ways women’s unpaid labour in the home is naturalised by state power as well as by capitalist production. The fantasy of the ‘normal person’ seemed to stand between those apoplectic about the idea of family abolition and the writings of Silvia Federici, Angela Davis, or Selma James.
Following Keir Starmer’s election, even the mild hope of social democracy has curdled. What is left behind is a belief that all ideas must have a precise legislative solution that can be ‘sold’ on the doorstep. The tweet that began the online storm includes a screenshot of the Verso instagram post, and reads ‘this is why we’ll never have socialism in Britain’. Family abolition, it implies, does not appeal to voters, is a niche subcultural obsession, and ‘ordinary people’ like their families would not respond well to the suggestion that the family be abolished. Many of those who reject the call to abolish the family have similar resistance to demands for police and prison abolition. Seymour observes that ‘many of those belabouring family abolitionism also found the Black Lives Matter insurgency to be a political disaster edged with violent over-reach’. This convergence speaks not only to a dispiriting lack of imagination, but a profound inability to apprehend the nature of the state and its relationship to capitalism.
In that economic dead zone between Christmas and New Year, while many were off work and doomscrolling among their relatives, the call to abolish the family was particularly offensive to those whose political centre of gravity was the Corbyn project. One Novara Media editor, who describes himself as a social democrat and is more closely aligned with electoral politics than others in that constellation, expressed his scepticism about the slogan.
Why do certain segments of the Left turn away in horror from the horizon of family abolition? I’d like to suggest that the root of the phenomenon lies in certain socialists’ belief that a more innovative, universalist, and redistributive state is the best we can hope for. Certainly not everyone involved in the Corbyn project took this position; many from the wider, more amorphous Left joined the ranks of Corbyn’s Labour Party with their eyes open to the limitations of electoral politics. ‘Vote Labour without illusions’ was, in this case, also ‘Canvass for Labour without illusions’. Beyond merely reversing the austerity measures, we hoped Corbyn’s election could allow us to rebalance the forces under which we would organise for a more general transformation. A Corbyn government, for example, would have scrapped the highly punitive trade union laws by which the workers’ movement has been hamstrung in recent decades. In other words, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was the opportunity to make an opportunity.
But Corbyn’s campaign focused less on issues of working-class power or autonomy, and far more on welfare provision and state services. This was understandable: cuts to public services led to at least 130,000 excess deaths between 2012 and 2017 – reversing austerity was a matter of life and death. The promise to rebuild the welfare state was powerful, crucial to Labour’s electoral gains in 2017, when the Conservatives lost their majority. Besides, New Labour had continued Thatcher’s assault on the tradeunion movement and, by the time Blair and Brown left office, a service-union model had taken hold. In the aftermath of deindustrialisation and the defanging of many trade unions, spaces for the development of an autonomous working-class culture had been severely curtailed. Many radical anti-racist and feminist groups had been folded into neoliberal service provision (or had just folded altogether), and austerity had undermined even those mild spaces of partial autonomy within civil society: the community centre, the tenants’ hall, the youth club. Corbynistas were drawn from a relatively wide pool, but there were few existing institutions with deep roots in working-class communities that could help this project gain real traction or longevity. To make matters worse, the right of the Labour Party had joined forces with a larger right-wing alliance to undermine Corbyn’s leadership.
In this context, alliances needed to be forged with whoever was around and a clear narrative about what immediate benefits a Labour government might bring felt like an urgent corrective to the smears. Ken Loach became a crucial collaborator. His work closely tracks the demise of more autonomous spaces of working-class life, and his recent films focused on the welfare state. I, Daniel Blake and The Spirit of ’45 both present the post-war welfare state as the unequivocal achievement of the British working class, a claim that obscures the role of state welfare in undermining working-class militancy and its basis in wealth extracted from the colonies. With Loach’s films often played at Labour Party and Momentum events, and Corbyn referencing I, Daniel Blake at Prime Minister’s Questions, this rosy view of the welfare state and the promise that it could be restored to its former glory dominated Corbyn’s policy platform. The urgent question of state violence – of the brutal domination inherent in policing, prisons and the military, of the slow violence of poor housing, rising prices, and workfare – was largely subordinated to a simple story of social welfare.
To imagine the welfare state and the family as unassailably good risks obscuring the connected everyday violence committed by their conjunction. The modern state is concerned with the management of populations, and statecraft uses the family as the basic unit of society and organises resources on this basis. The ‘family’ is the conduit of citizenship – the way the state weaves its power into the everyday and determines where, how and whether we live and die. The family – as ideology and as social reality – is the mechanism in which both access to resources and state intrusion coalesce. Consider the payment of child benefit to mothers, the tax benefits accrued by married couples, the ways in which a citizen can (if they earn above a certain threshold) sponsor the visa of a spouse, but not of a friend. The family functions as the basic unit of society not through natural composition, but through impersonal forces: those of the modern state.
Though fewer and fewer people live in nuclear family units, government policy continues to treat the family as a de facto social unit: think of all the Covid-19 regulations that assumed that the family and the household were coextensive, and could provide all of the sustenance and safety one might need. If you did not live within such a unit, your isolation and insecurity were your own problem. This approach was particularly stark in Britain, under a government so divorced from most people’s lives that their initial public health advice was that we should each use our own private bathroom at home, and cancel any cruises we had planned. Similar policies were enacted by governments around the world. Any political project focused almost entirely on channelling money into state institutions, then, is at risk of accepting the family as natural or inevitable.
That Corbynism incubated such a rosy view of the welfare state is highly ironic, given that Corbyn’s second-in-command, John McDonnell, was the co-author of the 1979 pamphlet In and Against the State. Over forty years later, the critique of the state in this text remains painfully relevant to our current predicament. The authors – comprising members of the London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, a working group of the Conference of Socialist Economists – offer a clear-eyed assessment of the post-war state in its fraught relation to socialism. Crucially, they recognise that the family is both constructed as the recipient of state aid and relied upon to provide the services – the work of care – that the state refuses to support:
The state seems at times to penetrate even our closest relationships with each other. Apart from the fact that the state marries and divorces us, officialdom has a well-defined view about ‘the family’, and what it should be.
Central to their critique is the distinction between the state’s resources (healthcare, housing, money) and the state form, the social relations, through which we gain (or are denied) access to these resources. These social relations are visible to us in the queues, the forms, the automated voice on the end of the phone, the webpage that won’t load, the knock at the door, the questions of social workers, the watchful eyes of teachers, the scepticism of doctors, the derision of psychiatrists. This distinction, however, between state resource and state form is particularly thorny as the resources dwindle, and the punitive, intrusive aspects of the social relations intensify. Intrusion, derision, surveillance, mockery, and exhaustion become the cost of living.
Being both inside the state (as workers in the public sector and as users of state services) and against the state means recognising the risks of acting in the state’s defence. The warning from 1979 resonates with our own recent predicament:
In the struggle against the capitalists’ attack on the capitalist state, it may seem tactically necessary to paint an unambiguously good picture of the state, to present the Welfare State as a great achievement of the working class, even as a step towards socialism. This is very dangerous. First, because it causes socialism and socialist struggle to fall into understandably bad repute in the working class. Secondly, because it loses an opportunity to pose an alternative to the Labour-Tory, ‘more State’/’less State’ pendulum, which keeps British capital so secure. Thirdly, because it is unconvincing: people know the state is oppressive and they are not prepared to fight to defend it, as we have seen both in the cuts campaigns and in the recent election.
The Corbyn project found itself doing precisely what some of its later advocates warned against here. In the run-up to the 2019 election, the panicked drip-feed of policies (national internet, better funding for the NHS) registered as a retail offer (free stuff!) rather than the promise of transformed social relations. This offer seemed cheap and flimsy next to Brexit’s promise of a new dawn, however absurd the basis for that claim.
While, at the advent of Thatcherism, John McDonnell and other socialists were keenly aware that control of state institutions was a glittering double-edged sword, seductive but potentially dangerous for the socialist project, by the time of Corbyn’s unlikely ascendancy to Leader of the Opposition, other dangers seemed more urgent. In the heat of intra-party conflict and relentless media attacks, the Corbyn project not only embraced the machinery of welfare as a neutral redistributive instrument, it also aligned itself with the carceral state apparatus. Corbyn’s call for more money for the police in 2017 after the London Bridge attacks, for example, was a short-term tactical move that revealed a deep conceptual weakness. In Diane Abbott’s equivocation on immigration detention centres as Shadow Home Secretary, we can see another example: though she expressed a commitment to closing Yarl’s Wood, this did not extend to the detention centres that primarily incarcerate men. These carceral institutions are not separate from the welfarist state project; they simply dominate in a more explicit fashion. The constant information-sharing between the police and other state agencies should alert us to these connections. In the modern state, and the family structure through which we often encounter it, punishment and care are hopelessly intertwined.
In and Against the State takes seriously this deep imbrication of care and cruelty, safety and surveillance, by talking directly with people who use or work in state institutions, and by threading their accounts through the pamphlet. Maureen, a mother of ten for whom the welfare state has been both lifeline and source of suffering, describes her experience of social workers, ‘[of] always being put down and everyone reading your notes’. Her children struggled with school, which failed to keep their attention, and on several occasions she had to appear in court to explain their truancy. The carceral dynamics of engaging with state services are clear from her analysis. So too are the ways in which it is largely women who do the work of negotiating the state form in order to access resources, for themselves and those for whom they care.
As the authors summarise:
Maureen was also in no doubt that the state, as she and her family recognise it, is something that has a special concern for and a special relationship with women. It is something that singles out women in the family for its dealings, and which women know most about.
Building on this point, Maureen observes that, despite the advent of the NHS and cash benefits, provisions her own mother did not live to see, ‘[i]t’s worse for me than it was for my mother.’ This claim is an important one in contesting the relentless story of progress with which we are bombarded and which runs counter to people’s experience of their own lives. Brexit took on such a peculiar power precisely because it spoke to – and promised to reverse – an experience of decline, rather than simply to rebuild institutions many had always experienced as oppressive.
Any political project that demands more money for state provision of services must question how people actually experience education, healthcare, housing, social work and the job centre. If we do not consider the role of state welfare institutions in capitalist domination, we allow reactionary forces to narrate and explain why people feel abandoned, mocked and cast aside. The Brexit campaign channelled people’s everyday experiences of suffering into xenophobic resentment, and promised that a renewed national pride would restore their own sense of dignity. When people were promised that Brexit would deliver ‘a bonfire of red tape’, they imagined their own demoralising administrative loads would be burnt along with the fisheries regulations.
A more radical, transformative approach to state institutions is possible – one that seeks to undermine both the ideological force of the family and the role of the state in upholding its inherent sexism – if we take seriously the knowledge of those forced to navigate them to survive. Returning to the period in which In and Against the State was written, we can see the ways in which the organising of that period influenced its critique. The late 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of Claimants’ Unions up and down the country, of which the members, all welfare claimants and mostly women, supported each other to access resources. They also organised against the ‘cohabitation rule’ which docked or severed a woman’s benefits if the state thought she was living with a man, or even just having sex with one. The benefits office worked from the presumption that any man one might be having sex with should also be the source of economic support – ironic given that sex work remained criminalised. To enforce the cohabitation rule, the benefits office sent ‘sex snoopers’ to perform spot checks late at night on women’s homes.
In the process of fighting the ideological force of the family and resisting attempts to privatise social reproduction, the Claimants’ Union began an early campaign for a ‘guaranteed adequate income’. Now this demand is articulated as a Universal Basic Income and often as a technical fix, embraced by Silicon Valley tech bros as well as those from more radical constituencies. But it began as what Toru Yamamori describes as the ‘daily struggle against sexism within the social security system’. It was conceived of not as a ‘policy solution’ to growing automisation of work, but as a militant wedge against the state form and the disciplinary structure of the family. In their ongoing demand for a ‘care allowance’ for all those that do the work of maintaining the community and the natural world, socialist feminists groups organising out of Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town continue this struggle.
As Selma James and Mariarosa Della Costa pointed out in 1972, the school system is there to shore up the family as a social arrangement, training children for the labour their parents are already doing while they’re at school. But it also intervenes to break the bonds between parents and children:
In elementary school children, in those who are the sons and daughters of workers, there is always an awareness that school is in some way setting them against their parents and their peers, and consequently there is an instinctive resistance to studying and to being ‘educated’.
When children revolt against this attempt to sever them from the family and the class, whole families are criminalised – young people are sent to Pupil Referral Units, parents fined for their childrens’ truancy, and the threat of further family separation looms. When pupils at Pimlico Academy staged a walkout to protest racist practices, for example, they were refusing to submit to the education system’s attempt to sever them from their families and communities. But they were also refusing to be the property of the family, as which children are so often seen within capitalist modernity, by forming a new social entity among themselves. Similarly, when tenants go on rent strike, domestic units comprising a rag-tag bag of housemates connect with more nuclear arrangements, and everyone’s sense of belonging is altered in the process. If we feel we belong to other collectives – if someone other than the family has our back – perhaps the sense of painful ambivalence that inheres in the nuclear family can be ameliorated.
How do we demand more from the welfare state without our domestic arrangements being subject to surveillance or coercion, measured against a respectable family structure few easily inhabit? Abolitionist reforms, a concept from campaigns to dismantle the criminal justice system, offer a useful touchstone. An abolitionist reform is one that reduces rather than extends the reach of carceral institutions. Scrapping the Gangs Matrix or withdrawing the use of tasers would function as abolitionist reforms, as they not only divert funds away from police; they also limit the power police have to profile, terrorise or injure. They start to chip away at the form of the institution, not only its resources. In contrast, the demand that police undertake diversity training or wear body cameras shores up police legitimacy and implies that violence is the result of poor training or a lack of oversight. If we approach the project of family abolition with this in mind, we can see that our orientation to the welfare state must be one that seeks to delegitimise rather than shore up its power to determine our intimate relationships and domestic arrangements.
Our everyday experiences of state institutions in their current form isolate us, disciplining us back into the family system – which many experience as a safety net studded with spikes. In the face of state surveillance, we rush to our own family’s defence. But after we’ve seen off the social worker or the police officer, we still complain to our friends about the emotional warp of family life. While social democrats might view the horizon of family abolition as niche or extreme, most people can relate to the feeling of family life as insufficient or stifling, always too much in some ways and too little in others. When we talk about abolishing the family, we must make clear the ways in which the family, and the limited respite it offers to some, is bound up with the state form, with the social relations that are produced and maintained in the interests of class domination. Equally, we must take seriously that the flimsiest of state provision is often all that falls between us and the grave. At our peril, we assume – as the Corbyn project often did – that we can keep the resources and lose the state form without a more substantial transformation.
Sita Balani is a writer and teacher living in London, and author of the forthcoming Deadly and Slick: Sexual Modernity and the Making of Race (Verso, 2023).