Beyond the End of the World: M.E. O’Brien’s Family Abolition

Madeline Lane-McKinley

Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care, by M.E. O’Brien, is now available from Pluto Press.


The call to abolish the family conjures, for many, something deeply dystopian. Perhaps the term evokes the horror of state-enforced family separation, violent oppression, or mass deprivation from intimacy and care. Or maybe it would draw gasps from the audience for intentions that must, it is assumed, be sinister—a mandated severance of the love for a sibling, a child, a parent, or whomever else one feels close to and linked by this idea of family.

For anyone already excommunicated by or separated from family, for whatever reason, the idea of family abolition might make little difference at all; or conversely, it might seem to disrespect and diminish relationships cherished, hoped for, or lost. To fascists, it would likely be read through their fantasias of grievance, a testament to the left’s obsession with annihilating all the hierarchies of gender, race, and capital—the supposed natural order that they seek to affirm at all costs.

For these reasons and more, family abolition “is not a slogan likely to inspire mass enthusiasm in the current political climate,” as queer communist thinker and writer M.E. O’Brien suggests—to the contrary, it is a provocation “fraught with misunderstanding and anxiety, including among many of the constituencies that may have the most to gain in overcoming the family form.” In her latest book, Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care (Pluto Press, 2023), O’Brien makes the case for staying with these misunderstandings and anxieties all the same, and applying pressure to this sense of impossibility. The result is an exceptionally generative and challenging text, a bold polemic that unfolds from historical case studies into a utopian thought experiment that will inspire readers to take up its key questions in revolutionary struggles to come.  

Family Abolition opens with a concrete example of what it could look like to practice a different kind of collective care—a crucial grounding step in introducing what might seem to some a strange and esoteric concept. In an account of the rise of the Oaxaca Commune, O’Brien describes what she calls the “insurgent social reproduction” that emerged as militants put up hundreds of barricades throughout the city to protect their neighborhood from police attacks in 2006. The women of the Oaxaca Commune “were rebelling simultaneously against both abusive husbands and racist, anti-indigenous, and anti-worker state forces,” O’Brien writes: “They were challenging the social role to which they were relegated as women, as wives, as mothers, upending norms of gender and sexuality,” while their collective labor “made the rebellion possible.”

In transforming their conditions of maternal care, the women of the commune also rendered new and different kinds of care more politically tangible in the process, as they extended the care labor of private households into the streets. As O’Brien clarifies, “rejection of the family was not a move toward isolation or abandoning of caretaking relationships” for the women of the Oaxaca Commune, but the impetus for mass mobilization.  

But though the state naturally opposed the uprising, ultimately, even moreso than external repression, it was the interventions of the family—understood here as a system of private, male-dominated households—that would throw the Oaxaca Commune into crisis. “There were many women who suffered domestic violence for being at the occupations and marches, sometimes their husbands even attempted to divorce or separate,” one participant in the Commune recounts. “The husbands didn’t take well to the idea of women abandoning the housework to participate politically.” The family, O’Brien suggests, became “a tool of counterinsurgency.”

In foregrounding this expansive yet ephemeral revolutionary example of the Oaxaca Commune—its radical breakage, as well as its contradictions and failures—O’Brien anticipates some of the fears aroused by family abolition. It’s easy to assume that an “abolition” is primarily a destructive and annihilating force. But it’s also important to question that assumption. Turning to the translation of “abolish,” from the German concept of Aufhebung—meaning “to suspend, to annul, to cancel, but also to preserve, to lift up, to save, and to keep”—O’Brien formulates a vision of family abolition that ultimately preserves “human love, connection, care, community, romance,” while freeing us “from relationships of coercion, abuse, isolation, and property.”

Throughout Family Abolition lies the possibility of unleashing care “into new forms, new practices, and new relationships,” such that “the forms of love present in the best families are not destroyed in the struggle to move beyond the family, but are broadened, generalized, and made universal.” Yet the anxieties stirred up by the language of abolition are worth further examination. And here, O’Brien is tremendously inspiring—not just in anticipating her critics and defending her polemic against them, but in demonstrating compassion and understanding toward the various reactions elicited by what she is well aware is a provocative notion.

If some, confronted with the idea, find it outlandish, then all the better— Family Abolition is a radical lesson in working through such confusion to move toward greater understanding and comradeship. It is a text that demands much of us, and refuses to indulge in the kind of volatility of so much political discourse today, where commentators flog simplistic and reductive notions as catchall phrases of contempt.

O’Brien offers a chance to sit thoughtfully with radical possibilities and big questions. “Many people imagine the family as a refuge,” she writes, “For many people, family members may be the only support available against the brutalities integral to capitalist labor markets, ecological catastrophe, and state violence. The family is imagined as the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless commodification of everything, and numerous other clichés that occasionally ring true. Many love their families and feel loved by their families, and love is not easy to find.”

At the same time, the isolation, precarity, and scarcity of care that the call to abolish the family seemingly portends are already fundamental aspects of capitalist life. What defenders of the traditional family purport to fear most has already come to pass—as a result of the very social hierarchies they are defending. As O’Brien consistently demonstrates, the impossibility attributed to family abolition, however that term might be encountered, reveals to us the constraints of possibility already imposed on us by the family form. The site of impossibility is the family itself; in O’Brien’s words, the family is “the limit of our imagination” in capitalist life.

As sloganry, “family abolition” is ineffective, and as O’Brien recommends, should be strategically avoided in a variety of contexts. However, the core ideas raised by family abolitionist thought have perhaps become more parseable in the era of COVID, when, in O’Brien’s words, “living with a family was impossible,” and “living without one even worse.”

This is precisely what O’Brien means by “the impossible family,” a concept she dedicates the first part of the book to describing through a myriad of crises: the function of the private household within the circuitry of capitalism, as well as its intertwinement in multiple forms of violence, coercion, and terror. The family is individualized, privatized, and hidebound, walled off from collective concerns and politics. It is where the majority of child and sexual abuse occurs in this world. And it is the site at which capitalism locates its social, and thereby its self-, reproduction.

As a normative ideal, the American family is a white supremacist image—“a fantasy space of terror that defines the human, the innocent, and the sexually pure,” O’Brien writes. The cultural image and psychic fantasy are bound up with a “privileged form of the family household characteristic historically of the capitalist class and whiteness,” as well as the regulatory regime of the state. While the call to abolish it is certainly fraught, it’s still the case that this twinned “impossibility” of the family deeply resonates with our political moment, and the collective traumas of the last few years.

Once a vital aspect of 1970s feminism, family abolition had virtually disappeared from the political landscape by the end of the 1980s, only to resurge in the last decade among queer, feminist, and communist thinkers. O’Brien dates this resurgence to the 2015 publication of “Kinderkommunismus: A Feminist Analysis of the 21st Century Family and a Communist Proposal for its Abolition,” an essay by J.J. Gleeson and K.D. Griffiths that, along with making a convincing political case against the family form, offers a set of practical steps toward the creation of voluntary “counter-familial institutions.” Four years later, Sophie Lewis published the first of two books about family abolition, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019) and Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation (Verso, 2022), both rich, ambitious, and intensely utopian texts that have elevated and popularized this concept while sparking tremendous, and predictable, controversies.

Within this recent constellation of writers, Lewis stoked the fire, and is in many ways O’Brien’s clearest interlocutor. Their work runs parallel, united by a shared critique, though their methods diverge at key junctures. I’m honored to be included by O’Brien as another contributor to this body of work—who, alongside Lewis and Tiffany Lethabo King, made what O’Brien calls a “sound and defensible” move in sidestepping the question of what is to come. For myself, this sidestepping has been a matter of moving into other genres, and wrestling with specifically child liberationist questions through aphorism and poetry. I have found in these other genres more space to linger with contradictions. King’s work quite powerfully deals with questions of history, and is less concerned with speculation. And for Lewis, it has not so much been a matter of avoidance, but a part of what I’ve described elsewhere as a critical utopian approach to family abolition in Full Surrogacy Now. As opposed to a representational utopia—the blueprints, maps, plans, programs that dominate western colonial utopian literature—critical utopianism is inherently anti-representational, motivated by problems rather than descriptions.

Lewis’s more recent manifesto, Abolish the Family, refines this critical utopianism. In her eloquent conclusion, Lewis reflects, “Being together as people and ending the separation of people—this is a future that can be imagined, even if it cannot be fully desired yet, at least, not by us.” She continues: “I don’t know how to desire it fully, but I can’t wait to see what comes after the family. I also know I probably won’t see whatever it is. Still, I hope it happens, and I hope it is a glorious and abundant nothing.” This notion of abundant nothingness beautifully encapsulates the critical impulse toward negation coursing throughout Lewis’s work—as well as a productive friction with O’Brien’s thinking.

Seeds of O’Brien’s book can be found in her essay “Communizing Care,” published in 2019 in Pinko, a gay communist magazine where O’Brien is also an editorial collective member. Family Abolition also builds on an essay O’Brien wrote for the communist journal Endnotes in 2020, titled “To Abolish the Family: The Working-Class Family and Gender Liberation in Capitalist Development.” A rigorous history that begins in industrial Europe and plantation-era America, the essay follows the developments of family abolitionist thought from the 1830s to present. Where O’Brien adapts these concepts in Family Abolition, they’re essential to the historical critique of the family that reappears in the book’s first half.

Family Abolition brings together elements from these earlier writings, but it’s clear that O’Brien’s political project has also been profoundly shaped by the intervening years since their 2019 and 2020 publications. The text is suffused with the ramifications of the George Floyd uprising as a revolutionary force; so too with the crises of care that were accelerated by COVID-19. The radical possibilities of moving beyond the family can be “found through the collective movement of mass struggle,” as O’Brien writes: “the millions of people moved by George Floyd’s plea to his mother to take the streets or burn police cars were taking up the kernel of love in some families and making it into something great… People form new relations of solidarity and love in the intensity of uprisings. In these moments of insurgency, the tasks of caring for each other take on new meaning, new urgency, and new forms.”

These moments, bursting with revolutionary energy, hint at what it might mean to abolish the family—a utopian horizon occluded from everyday experience by the prerogatives of capitalism, but which becomes perceptible, however faintly and briefly, through collective movements. While absolutely written in the spirit of these insurrectionary moments, and with the hope of future uprisings, Family Abolition is also very much a text about the melancholy of living with the collective memory of such explosions of possibility, and waiting for what’s to come.

“Revolutionary ideas can only take on mass appeal during revolutionary moments,” O’Brien explains, “The rest of the time, they can only gain traction among marginal and disaffected sections of society.” It’s crucial to seize upon the fervor and possibilism of these moments, but O’Brien’s project faces something far more demanding: what she describes as the necessary task of “developing and maintaining revolutionary ideas between the revolutions.”

Taking up this task, O’Brien has offered major contributions to family abolitionist thought in her aforementioned essays, but also—and in my mind, more compellingly—outside the realm of political theory. Last year, she published a novel with Eman Abdelhadi, Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072, a speculative history of an insurrection told as a commemoration of its 20th anniversary. Projected into this future, Abdelhadi and O’Brien are both characters who have come together to create an oral history, comprised of interviews with different people who were involved in the insurrection that led to the New York Commune. “In the twenties,” O’Brien is described as having written over a dozen books, “including a series that was influential to the transformation of kinship and caretaking relationships within the commune, once known by the phrase ‘family abolition.’”

This genre experimentation is above all the strongest element of O’Brien’s writings, and what’s most distinct about her work among those who share her endeavor to work through the political impossibilities aroused by family abolition. Family Abolition begins as an incredibly lucid articulation of the problem of the private family, which extends into an ambitious account of historical examples of family abolitionism, only to conclude with an unflinching, utopian set of conjectures. While the first and second parts of the book will prove to be invaluable to the political discourse of family abolition, and mark a major contribution to this literature, the third part—entitled “Toward the Commune”—is what makes Family Abolition such a masterpiece.

“Imagine the world on the cusp of communist revolution, a communization of collective life,” O’Brien asks of her readers. She sets about to imagine a revolutionary struggle, strengthened by the insurgent social reproduction which she initially locates in the Oaxaca Commune. She elaborates what this might look like, expanding in the midst of mass communization, as communes form as “answers to the essential question that will arise in a revolutionary process: How can we take care of each other?

Within this speculative vision of family abolition, O’Brien explains that people could “continue to establish and maintain familial relationships. But within the commune, these relationships could be less coercive than the present-day family, and no longer the basis for anyone’s material well-being, class position, or social power.” Family abolition is not a matter of “taking anyone’s children away, nor a further atomization by the market, nor an expansion of state power,” but is defined to the contrary as “our capacity for care and love becoming the basis for radical new social forms, made universal in the overthrow of class society.”

As a utopian demand, family abolition reckons with madness. It must reckon with the madness of how it is perceived, but, more importantly, with the madness of what it calls into question. There’s a certain pathologization of utopian thought that has a way of structurally reinscribing conformity and discouraging “unreasonable” questions, that demands that we hew to “common sense” and avoid imagining what we know could and must be transformed. Kathi Weeks has argued that the utopian demand, as a confrontation with conditions of possibility, “must be both strange and familiar, grounded in the present and gesturing toward the future,” and “concrete rather than abstract.” Throughout Family Abolition, O’Brien builds from the concrete, moving between registers of analysis, critique, and speculation to ultimately arrive at the “collective potential between us all yet to be discovered”—a shared project of what she calls red love.

However unknowable, red love is not impossible. Rather, as O’Brien suggests, “it is a promise that we can glimpse and yearn for, a promise we can fight for, a promise we can live for.” It’s in the form of this promise, more than as a plan or as a blueprint, that the utopianism in Family Abolition blossoms most vibrantly, and materializes, almost palpably, the possibility that such a thing could be ours. Like the best in utopian writing, Family Abolition ultimately advances an account of our collective and unconscious desires; it dares to speak, and even make imaginable, what is profoundly shut out from the world of capitalism, what we can hardly bear to know that we harbor a longing for. It is, at every step, a dangerous endeavor.

Only in a free society—beyond capitalism, beyond the family—can we, in O’Brien’s words, “finally know what it means to love and be loved.” Until then, we will have to fight for this love within our shared constraints and our shared sense of what is impossible, facing the challenges of how to love in a world that insists that these are individual problems, to be felt personally but never politically. We are left to not-quite-know—and because of this, we have to wonder, and we have to dream. This is a collective possibility, as O’Brien writes—“it lies beyond the end of the world.”♦

Madeline Lane-McKinley is a writer and teacher based in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times (Common Notions Press, 2022), and a co-editor of Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry. 

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