No, Coronavirus is Not a Chance to Abolish the Family | Alessia Cesana-Harris

The state of emergency caused by COVID-19 has not stopped the work of opinion columnists. If anything, it has increased it, as the lack of a commute has given people more time to think and write and argue online. One such article is an opinion column by a Sophie Lewis for a project called openDemocracy, which argues that Coronavirus shows us we need to abolish the family. I am here to argue otherwise.

As you might guess, as someone writing for a conservative publication, the chances of agreeing with her were slim. However, I am also intellectually honest, and I can change my mind if a strong argument proves me wrong. The argument in question, however, has more holes in it than a colander.

Her argument boils down to two things: some people have no homes, and some have unsafe ones due to domestic violence. As a person interested in queer communism, as her biography lets us know, Lewis sees it as a feature of the capitalist system rather than a bug, and so as two reasons why we should abolish the nuclear family (that is, family as a couple and any offspring they have or adopt) and the private home. An additional reason, given in passing, is that in this time of crisis people have a duty (which many gladly embraced) to help strangers.

I can, to an extent, agree with her point about the nuclear family: it’s a reductive way to view what, I believe, is inarguably the cornerstone of society, and a symptom of an individualistic strand of liberalism that is hegemonic in the West. For most of our history, our understanding of family would have been broader. More than two generations lived in proximity to each other, alongside a network of kin. It’s not just the Highland society we see in “Outlander”: to this day, my father’s relatives on the maternal side all live within a 20km radius from the city where the family originated. Traditional Italian architecture like the “Cascina” (country house) shows us the kind of multi-nuclear family living that was the norm in the country until not that long ago. Local histories in most places would bring up analogous arrangements.

One interesting feature of such arrangements was that blood was not the only glue holding together the society: it revolved around a common purpose (in the case of a Cascina, farming). In more urban settings, parishes, fraternities and later community organisations, filled a similar role in making the neighbour more than a stranger. The history of humanity shows us as a collaborative species, and it shouldn’t surprise us that we are ready to lend a helping hand to people we know and don’t know alike.

As for the specific concerns of the author, homelessness and domestic violence, they are a cancer on our society that needs addressing. I don’t see how the family affects the lack of housing, except perhaps by making it harder to provide adequate settings than if we were all single and easily housed in a 50-storey tower of studio flats. However, there are bigger economic circumstances at play when someone is homeless, and the family is often what’s there to prevent it from happening to even more people.

Domestic violence is a whole other beast (and one too common cause of homelessness too), because in this case the family is where the problem lies. The most common patterns are parents against children, or partners against their partners. In the latter case, part of the abuse is isolating the person from their family, because the family can come between the partners and take the abused one away from the abuser. Not every case of violence from a partner ends with the happy rescue of the abused person by a family: in many cases, there is rejection, blame, and shame waiting for them, and we should all, as a society, do more to ensure there are safe and loving spaces ready to welcome those with no one else to turn to. To me, to look at the cases when blood relations act not as a family should do (protecting and supporting each other), and say we should just abolish families would be like looking at the prevalence of cancer and saying that we should just abolish humanity.

Wanting to abolish the family only makes sense when your worldview sees every family, even those that are not dysfunctional, as problematic (which is the case for Ms Lewis), but there’s a danger in looking at everything through the lenses of a power struggle: you don’t address the real cause and so the struggle only changes the theatre in which it takes place. There are many examples through history of people fighting for freedom from an oppressive regime only to find themselves governed by another, including as recently as the situation in the Middle East these past few years (where Western intervention aimed at expanding democracy has failed its aim at a really high cost).

On a smaller level, if the power structure in the family, which Ms Lewis sees as benefitting male partners, was the reason for domestic violence, all cases of violence would be within established relationships, which isn’t the case. It would also restrict domestic violence to a dynamic of the male partner against a female partner, which excludes the many instances of women being abusive of male partners, as well as violence between partners of the same sex. She asks “can a zone defined by the power asymmetries of housework (reproductive labor being so gendered), of renting and mortgage debt, land and deed ownership, of patriarchal parenting and (often) the institution of marriage, benefit health?”, but research has shown that marriage benefits us and our health. We should be striving for policies that ease such burdens in functional families (and stop making women have to see their fertility as a problem in order to be competitive in a world designed by and for men), and addressing the root causes of the dysfunction and dangers in the remaining ones.

Our history and the animal world show us time and again how getting together, collaborating and reproducing are what ensured the survival of the species: we are biologically wired to be in families. And if anything, this pandemic showed us that we stand better chances of success as a society when we look at families in a broader sense than just the nuclear family. The elderly and the vulnerable in our society have often been forgotten amid the economic bustle, but most of us have taken it upon themselves to protect each other by staying home, if we are lucky to have one. Now, we mustn’t forget those who don’t have a home or aren’t safe in the one they have, but to do so doesn’t require us to turn our backs on the fundamental unit of society. If anything, it nudges us to just make it even bigger.


Photo by Michael Sweet on Flickr. 

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