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Abolishing the Family

The fight against police and prisons cannot be separated from the struggle to extend care beyond the limits of the family form.


Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care
M. E. O’Brien
Pluto Press, $22.95 (paper)

For a book all about families, M. E. O’Brien’s Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care opens with a surprising scene of fighting the police. In 2006, “an unstructured coalition of workers, students, peasants, women, youth, indigenous people, and urban poor” protested in the Mexican state of Oaxaca in an effort to force a public reckoning with the disappearance by police of teacher activists. In this self-identified Oaxaca Commune, mothers played an outsize role, not only cooking food to keep the rebellion going but also fighting the police themselves. In the United States, abolitionist discourse tends to keep these two aspects of confronting police violence far apart. The masculine resistance of a Black Panther Party is often treated separately from stories of women caring for their communities and providing safety alternatives to policing. Yet in the Oaxaca Commune, not only was it impossible to maintain this separation, but according to O’Brien the very women fighting for their children were also engaged in abolishing the family. How does abolishing the family protect children, fight the police, and promote feminist visions of justice all at the same time?

When it comes to the possibilities of abolition, no domain is more misunderstood, maligned, and mistrusted than the claim to abolish the family. Even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.” Fortunately, O’Brien’s Family Abolition clears up these misconceptions, reveals the long history of family abolition within the left, and argues that family abolition today could meaningfully build a large and diverse coalition to meet everyone’s needs. Crucially for the study of abolition, O’Brien shows how feminist and queer radical politics have always been central to abolitionist politics. Building on the work of Black feminists such as Angela Y. Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, contemporary family abolitionists show that addressing the problems of interpersonal violence requires not just fighting the manifest violence of police and prisons, but also fighting the most intimate, “private” violence of family life itself.

O’Brien understands that abolishing the family can sound like a scary and preposterous prospect. After all, under neoliberal capitalism, isn’t family often our only resource and safe haven? For society’s weakest, in O’Brien’s words, it may seem that “to abolish the family is to make the world unlivable.” Yet in O’Brien’s definition, to abolish the family is not to outright get rid of the family and leave people as isolated individuals. Instead, family abolition seeks to preserve and expand the best part of caring families while rejecting the family as the only site of care and love. O’Brien writes: “Family abolition is the care we all need abundantly available beyond the family. This care could extend through the whole of society, made possible through deep revolutionary change.” Family abolition challenges the violence of the capitalist, white supremacist state in order to radically transform society into one where all peoples can live and flourish.

The problem of the family under white supremacist capitalism, according to O’Brien, is that the family privatizes care within its biologically defined limits, exposes its members to violence both within and without, and polices individuals into a narrowly rigid and normative family form. As a norm, “the family is a limit to human emancipation,” one that preserves hierarchy and violence within itself, no matter how radically society and politics transform outside of the family.

O’Brien focuses her critique of the family on three key failings.

First, under neoliberal capitalism the family is a private household contrasted to the public state, based on the accumulation of property. The family is therefore a node within capitalist reproduction. Private property defines the family under capitalism, and, up until very recently, that was property only accumulated under the name of the father/husband. Capitalism also uses the family as a means to reproduce its workers—literally birthing them and keeping them alive. The family must provide the care to bodies and minds that capitalism itself does not want to publicly provide for.

Second, the family is a site of physical and psychic violence. O’Brien writes: “The family is a normative ideal, structured through race, sexuality, class, and gender. . . . In the family ideal, the material class and race politics of how people are able to form families is bound together with social status, cultural fantasy, and government policies.” Within the family, spousal and child abuse can run rampant, with little interest from the state so long as the family outwardly fits the norm of white, middle class, and economically stable. In particular, the violence of the family forces individuals to conform to heterosexual and patriarchal norms around gender and sexuality, inflicting interpersonal physical and psychic trauma that millions cannot escape.

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Third, when the state does take an interest in families, instead of providing public services to support them, the state polices them. O’Brien writes, “States have encouraged particular forms of families, policed family life, determined what types of housing are available, provided public schooling, and legally regulated relationships of shared resources, sex, or parenting.” Building on Dorothy Roberts’s work on the family policing system, O’Brien shows how much of police activity devotes itself to defining who counts as “good” families—and that “protection” is newspeak for breaking up families, mainly poor and Black, deemed dangerous and non-normative.

Taken together, the violence of the normative family form highlights the central tension that family abolition aims to overcome. O’Brien writes: “The family offers precisely that which is most precious and most needed in human life. Yet it is also where someone is most likely to be brutalized, raped, or forced into a long-term relationship of violent subordination.”

Preserving what is best about the family while abolishing its violence has long been the central goal of family abolitionist politics. Critically, O’Brien identifies that family abolition should not be mistaken for a niche concern: While the term itself may feel new to many, family abolition has long been a primary concern within feminist and queer politics, a necessary counterweight to the authority white supremacist capitalism invests in the family as a principal venue for enacting its politics.

Under industrialization, Marx and Engels noted, the new labor regime of the factory destroyed the ability for the working class to maintain family life. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie invested in a privileged form of family in which a male breadwinner was able to keep wife and children hidden away. And, indeed, the ability to sustain this kind of family would become a primary marker of class distinction for the newly minted middle class.

In the young society of the United States, this would dovetail with a racial politics: The bourgeois U.S. family was a normatively white family, in no small part because slavery and Native genocide literally killed non-white families and denied that Indigenous and Black people had any capacity for family life. As industrialization continued in the nineteenth century, it bred the first generation of family abolitionists, who rejected the norms of the bourgeois family. O’Brien writes, “Where bourgeois reformers saw the sex life of urban proletarians as one of sexual degeneracy and deviance, we can also trace a yearning for autonomy, pleasure, and freedom.” These early feminists and sex radicals, inspired by utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier, imagined ways of living beyond the bourgeois family. They created communes where everyone both worked and supported each other, where children were raised by all, and care was a relationship that extended to all people, not only biological kin.

Unfortunately, this vision of family abolition was not one pursued by the left at large. Instead, the workers’ movement focused on a vision of securing the bourgeois family norm for the industrial white working class. Through unionization and higher wages, the working class could also aspire to the goal of having families in which a single male worker provided for his wife and children—even if, in practice, that remained an impossible hope for many. The mainstream labor movement nonetheless remained so committed to this aspiration that it never pushed for state policies extending care and welfare universally, detached from the need to work.

For O’Brien, a new generation of family abolitionists would not emerge until the crises of the 1970s, as feminists and queer activists pushed again on the limitations of the family. These activists “rejected the sexual politics of the workers’ movement through three principal challenges: to the masculinity embraced by the Left, to the heterosexual nuclear family and the miseries of suburban life, and to the centrality of work itself.” Movements like Wages for Housework challenged the centrality of women’s uncompensated labor to the social reproduction of workers under capitalism, while gay activists such as Guy Hocquenghem pushed against the criminalization of queer life.

In our present moment, there is no question that the family form has changed beyond its initial bourgeois limits, and has continued to face new challenges from family abolitionists in recent years. As O’Brien notes, the family has never not been in crisis. Today that crisis looks like “the expanding space for queer and trans life, more people able to choose living alone, pockets of celebrating the diversity of actually existing kin relations” while also experiencing “stagnant wages, dismantling of welfare states, collapsing public health infrastructures, massive expansion of racist state terror, and the absence of sustained social movements.” We might add to this list the renewed conservative backlash against queer and trans rights and the diminishing of public support for gay marriage.

The paradox of the family today is that its ideological grip has never been looser, yet the family is often now the only resource individuals have to draw upon to stave off the most terrifying deprivations of capitalism: homelessness, hunger, imprisonment, deportation, and death from lack of health care.

With this in mind, what does the vision for family abolition look like today? Rather than a niche historical concern, O’Brien argues that family abolition could serve as a broad project bringing together a diverse constituency pursuing leftist goals. The central problem family abolition addresses is that, if care is only organized through the biological family, then millions are left alone and outside of care: “For all those people who chose not to live in families, our society offers scant alternatives for a decent life.” Addressing the needs of these millions provides a ripe base for leftist politics. O’Brien writes evocatively of the many people who stand to benefit from having “positive, affirming, and caring alternatives to their existing households.”

Even when they choose to stay, the means of escape may increase their standing within the household. Others would primarily benefit from an overhaul of public policy, distribution of material resources, and cultural valuation to embrace and support nontraditional forms of household formation. Finally, all would benefit from the expansion of forms of care readily available outside the private household. They are all potential constituents in a broad-based political effort to move beyond the family.

Yet, beyond building a large progressive coalition, O’Brien also advocates for revising the more speculative visions of communal life within family abolition. In practice, O’Brien sees family abolition practiced most concretely during the moments of mass occupation that we have seen since 2000. During occupations, occupiers must engage in what O’Brien calls insurgent social reproduction: cooking food, providing housing and health care, taking care of the young and old, etc. This social reproduction is insurgent because it is both socialized beyond the family and aids the more overtly political struggles of occupations to revolutionize public life: “Family abolition here is our capacity for care and love becoming the basis for radical new social forms, made universal in the over-throw of class society. Through the revolutionary commune, we can take care of each other.”

O’Brien’s form of family abolition then ultimately advocates for the “communization of care.” Just as police abolitionists argue that it is communities and not the state that keep people safe, O’Brien argues that care can be universalized across people and does not need to be organized either through the family or the state.

As an example of insurgent social reproduction, we can return to where O’Brien begins, with the Oaxaca Commune’s fight against police terror. Not only did the commune involve mothers fighting for their missing children, but the commune itself had to literally fight the police who sought to destroy it. It would be wrong then to say that a concern for family abolition and police abolition do not go hand in hand. For, as O’Brien shows, throughout modern history police have been enforcers of the normative family form. Efforts to communize life also necessarily encounter the police, such as the ubiquitous police surveillance and provocation of the Occupy Movement.

It is clear that the abolition of police and prisons can never be separated from the abolition of the family form. The police who clear occupations and kidnap children from poor families are the same police who racially profile and shoot without warning. Indeed, O’Brien’s book shows how the state claims to defend “innocent” families from “violent” criminals as a necessary defense for its own existence. Just as the fight to abolish slavery radicalized democratic movements for labor and gender equality, contemporary abolitionist struggles cannot fail to touch upon all domains of life, from the public politics of police and prisons to the intimate sphere of the family. Indeed, O’Brien shows that when it comes to having more love, support, and care in our lives, we all have much to gain from the end of the family.

Image: Max Kleinen/Unsplash