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t has given me more pleasure than I can say, to have my book midwifed by Elizabeth Johnson and Kai Bosworth — two individuals I admire in all respects — and platformed by them at the AAG Annual Meeting for the purposes of a dedicated “doula formation” (as Paul names it) formed of commentaries by such luminous scholars as Alex Loftus, Reecia Orzeck, Will McKeithen, Paul Jackson, and Maria Fannin. Obviously, the first thing I want to say here, in responding to these rich reviews, is an enormously earnest “thank you.” In addition to its more general geopolitical ghoulishness, 2019 has been a difficult and somewhat surreal time for this particular family-abolitionist. My personal bio-familial circumstances this year have involved terrible and looming bereavement, compounded by precarity, not to mention border- and immigration-related obstruction and capture. I call this surreal, not because it was somehow “hypocritical” to be speaking publicly about abolishing the naturalized private/nuclear family – and its scaled-up counterpart, the nation – while, simultaneously, struggling (like so many people right now) to cross borders in order to be with a family member. Nor because it was somehow “contradictory” to be preaching “full surrogacy” while tending to my historically estranged mother’s deathbed. Quite the contrary. The temporal coincidence of the Full Surrogacy Now launch with this (for me) unprecedented requirement that I beat my closest bio-relative’s bedside brought the stakes of my subject-matter to life with almost unbearable intensity. Doula formations are what make it bearable.
My mother (and she is my mother, even if I am mothered now by many), tragically, has practically no one else. But that’s why nothing could have better illustrated the impossibility, the unjustness, and the structural scarcity (for all concerned) baked into the heart of this template for social reproduction I set out, in my book, to criticize. And, while I slowly taught myself, over the months, how not to divorce what I was lecturing about from what I was feeling, people all over the world (Will McKeithen and Alex Loftus among them) honored me in turn, by sharing their personal responses to what I have written — in a register of disclosure and vulnerability that perhaps ought not to have surprised me, but, if I’m honest, did. Admittedly, sometimes audiences’ emotional response to my propositions also took the form of ridicule and an interesting kind of anger: “people get furious,” my friend Alex Benham mused to me when I was in Oxford, “when you tell them that they deserve more than they have, or, in this case, that they deserved more than they received, as children.” And people (not limited to InfoWars and the pro-life alt-right—though that kind of attention was, er, abundant)did get furious. However, more often than not, touring Full Surrogacy Now has seemed to raise an oasis of oddkinning and comradeliness up from what I had begun to think of as the desert of academia. With all its queries and criticisms of my approach, some of them not un-serious, this forum has been organized nd curated in such a way as to make me feel truly and beautifully “held.” I am sincerely thankful to everyone in it, and it is for that reason that I am trying, here, as you can see, to keep faith with this precious and none-too-common (at least, not in academia) willingness to keep the personal, the traumatized, the care-needy and the emotional self in the room for this conversation. It isa conversation, after all, all about “becoming-with” and “becoming worldly”such as to en-flesh a future conducive to just that.
A quick word about what Paul calls my personal “birthing” of this book, and its vexed (that is to say, utopianly attacked, in my book!) relation to the circumstance in which I am speaking, this is, speaking for and taking credit for the thing; alone. Picking up on that phrase Reecia liked, from Mario Biagioli’s discussion of kinship and plagiarism— “authorship can only be co-authorship” — I like to joke sometimes that “for sure, authorship can only be co-authorship, but please still buy my book and support me on Patreon, ha ha!” As is the case with many noir jokes, I think what I’m signaling here is ruefulness and regret that that particular contradiction of capitalism — the way in which this work is “mine” and also not mine, anticapitalist and a commodity — will perhaps not be transcended particularly soon. At any rate: I confess, I feel extremely proud. (By the way, I am very touched that Will has here encouraged readers to support mywork financially since, it’s true, for the past three years I have had no institutional or otherwise steady income). While it’s generally the case that nothing’s worse than the misery of being exploited by the wage than the misery of not being exploited by the wage (or not sufficiently), given the state of the academy as a workplace in the twenty-first century, I sometimes wonder if it would actually have been more difficult to complete Full Surrogacy Now if I had had a job. What is unambiguous, however, is that nothing would have emerged in the absence of those who reproduced my labor-power in my community and my home, the ones who intra-generationally mothered me.
Anyway: it is surely time for me to address my critics/allies/doulas. All of the reviews here are generous, so I will now cease self-congratulation and skip over the bulk of the praise in order to focus on the problematizations. I have counted four: Firstly, I shall reply to Maria’s suggestion that I give space to a positioning of the gestator as the fetus’s “unfortunate and undeserving victim” in “what reads, if [she] were to be critical, as a kind of inversion of the pro-life rhetoric around abortion as murder.” This will also give me a pretext to address Paul, whose lucent and lovely remarks contain only one moment, that I can see, where doubt can perhaps be detected (likewise, around my treatment of abortion). Secondly, I shall endeavour to say something brief in response to Will’s dissatisfaction with or, as they charmingly put it, “curiosity” about the role of the state in my analysis. This connects, I think, with their questions — not really directed at me so much as to everyone — about strategy towards full surrogacy (especially around “strategic proprietarianism” and “reformist reforms” versus “abolitionist” ones) and solidarity (holding in tension the prize of worker-autonomy and the horizon of anti-work, for example; or bridging the waged sector of gestational labor from the unwaged one; or broadening the struggle to include non-workers). Thirdly, I will attempt to take on Reecia’s compelling case that my claim that all gestation is work is not fully persuasive, but also that said claim is not necessarily Full Surrogacy Now’s fundamental argument. Lastly, I will speak a little to the question of the “necessity” of “family abolition,” raised by Reecia (who is not “entirely” convinced on this matter), but hinted at, too, by Alex, who rightly calls it a “lingering question.”
This might surprise Maria, but I would actually dispute that I give space to a “relentless and unblinking negativity around pregnancy” in this book. I hope my stance is much more dialectical, and it is very much my contention, too, that what is at stake is a dangerous plasticity à la Malabou: the condition of being all vulnerable albeit not all equally so. She and I have exchanged thoughts in print on more or less this very question before, and I am benefiting greatly from the challenge. But perhaps I should now try to re-state the intentions behind beginning the book with that lurid panorama of gestational biology’s relational dynamics, drawn from Suzanne Sadedin — that is to say, with the account of pregnancy that Maria already queried, albeit in a different way, in a 2018 forum on “CyborgUterine Geography” in Dialogues in Human Geography. So: the purpose in opening with this molecular violence, as I see it, is very much not to be “negative” about pregnancy, but precisely to insist on the admiration I have for those who participate in this most extreme of extreme sports. The point for me, as I try hard to drive home, is that everyone should be empowered to have as pleasurable an experience as possible of being put to work by a placenta. Gestating a fetus, to date, seems to have meant everything to people, from a maddeningly uncomfortable bore to a sublimely kinky, ecstatically self-annihilating activity (it’s surely also obvious to everyone that it’s an activity to which I’m personally very attracted). But the fact is, too, that right now, this awe-inspiring gestating claims about 300,000 gestators’ lives a year and injures untold others. It makes me feel a bit odd, that a labor with these kinds of statistics isn’t at least questioned. To reiterate: if I write about this riskiness and grisliness of maternal-fetal intra-action, it’s fundamentally because I think it imperative that a process many of us want — and like — to do be rendered as safe and non-lethal as possible, at least for those of us who want it to be safe and non-lethal. (Again, I genuinely feel that people should be free to do weird, unhealthy, dangerous things. I certainly want to be.) If I come across as edgy or provocative, perhaps it’s because of my frustration with the silence about this often-fatal molecular aggressiveness, which I do feel shrouds the topic of natality in everyday academic and lay conversation (as though admitting to pregnancy’s ripping, agonistic character would necessarily be to disparage it).
It of course displeases me that a brilliant philosopher and fellow feminist has found, even for a disavowed moment, an “inversion of pro-life rhetoric” — predicated on the idea of abortion as “murder” and on an image of the gestator as victim of the fetus — in my thought. It’s true that there is a strategy of negation at work, when I agree with the proponents of forced gestation (or fetus-fetishists, as I also call them) that to abort a fetus involves killing, whilst rejecting their premise that this means, ethically and politically speaking, “case closed.” My purpose here is (unmistakably, I hope) to strengthen what Jenny Brown calls “the abortion struggle now” (Brown2019) by pushing the envelope at a time when the aforementioned struggle is losing ground at a vertiginous pace, while remaining dismayingly disorganized, equivocal, and apologetic. Agreeing with the forced-lifers that, were abortion killing, it would obviously be wrong and bad — and deploying the gambit that, luckily, it isn’t (instead, it’s ‘choice’ or ‘healthcare’ or what-have-you) — does not seem to me to be a winning strategy, for the simple reason that it isn’t entirely honest and doesn’t allow us to want what we want: abortions. The truth is that abortions are choice and healthcare and killing. Why cede even an element of this truth to our enemies? That abortions represent a form of killing that we need to be able to positively defend ought not to be controversial, for it is objectively true that abortions definitionally consist of killing an embryo or fetus. It is also objectively true that abortions are good for people and conducive to happiness. As I write in the book, I am in agreement with Donna Haraway’s suggestion that “sometimes it’s important to kill … it can be a good thing to do;” (Haraway, 2017) and equally, with Maggie Nelson’s, that “We’re not idiots. We understand the stakes. Sometimes we choose death.” (Nelson, 2015:94)
These negations are not inversions; were they inversions, they would be about standing against life, but these orientations, in contrast, reject the dichotomy and its premise. As Paul suggests, the true source of the discomfort (and rage) people feel in reaction to my positing abortion in terms of the freedom to withdraw labor is perhaps not so much the ideas themselves, as the social contradictions which I am trying to amplify and see through to their logical conclusion. But of course, my remarks on abortion, not my remarks on expanding and proliferating relationships of care, were the ones that ended up being aired on Tucker Carlson Tonight — in the form of the film-clips originally disseminated by Verso Books as part of the Full Surrogacy Now promotional campaign — earning mea deluge of scary hate-mail that was not, I’m sad to say, entirely un-reminiscent of the earlier deluges I experienced at the hands of the TERFs (or, as Paul calls them, FARTs). Perhaps I need to think again about this unstrategic strategy. Or perhaps contemporary advances in ectogenetic technology, which I write about in Logic magazine (Lewis, 2019) — namely, Bio-Bags designed by people who hope that ectogenesis might do away with the “need” for abortion to entail killing — will bear me out, and answer some of Will’s and Reecia’s questions about “strategic proprietarianism” along the way. (On strategic deployments of property-in-the-body arguments by those excluded from the category of the human and hence, from property-bearing ability, see Petchesky,1995). In the meantime, I stand by my positions, but I remain totally open to hearing other ways in which abortion can be rigorously defended on this terrain, without recourse to a defense of killing, on the one hand, or the right to quit forced labor (the Thirteenth Amendment, basically), on the other.
Will sends me, by post, an iron-on badge (the final image featured in their response) with the words “abolish the family!abolish the state!” superimposed above an infant face in silhouette: a daily reminder of the as-yet-unthought and perhaps as-yet-unthinkable horizon of a children-led politics of children’s liberation. Will’s joy-inducing response asks: how do we get to family abolition, what might the role of the state be in this — and what is family abolition anyway, haven’t we in some ways already got it (yes and, mainly, no)? The mobilizations mentioned — and surely Will is right about what they mean — are not ones I’d considered in this light before. It is unusual and refreshing not to be asked (the sempiternal question!) “hasn’t the family been abolished already” from the point of view of a rear-guard defense against capitalist atomization. My interlocutor in these cases usually has in mind the pronouncements by Marx and Engels on the melting-into-air of the working-class family, wishing (sometimes willfully?) to misunderstand my intervention asa plea for more contractuality, more commodification, and more neoliberal individualization. Melinda Cooper’s Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (2017) — while not taking the possibility of abolishing the family seriously — is the best resource I know evidencing the family itself (this family-form that functions the better for being undead and in perpetual crisis) as one of the building-blocks of that very atomization; detailing contemporary capitalist states’ intensive ongoing reliance on it. Tactics of resistance might include (are these reformist reforms or non-reformist ones?) implementing a 100% inheritance tax, normalizing multigender mothering, refusing to register babies, or coercing the state into listing a minimum of one dozen parents on a baby’s birth certificate. Anyway, I am willing to bet I agree with, and would present myself (should our geographies coincide) a willing co-conspirator in whatever witchy experiments Will and their friends get up to in the name and/or spirit of “full surrogacy.” Full surrogacy, or family abolition, it must indeed be for me; because simply saying anticapitalist or socialist feminism is no longer enough — if it once was — to signal our desire for the post-whiteness, post-work, post-oedipal, fully communized mode of socialreproduction we deserve. Far too many feminisms, including left ones, naturalize“biological” kinship and/as private households. Many, which is worse, are concertedly bioconservative, stopping at the moral rung that is mere anticommodification.
Reecia’s very welcome remarks about the disconnect and slippage between the class-specific and transhistoric/trans-class valences of the word “work,” as I deploy it in relation to gestating, are by far the hardest to answer. I’m honoured by her rigorous rumination on this, by her “confession of obstinance,” and above all by the intimation of future conversations about “the hows, whys and ifs” of defining work in certain ways, on the way to redistributing (communizing), refusing, automating or doing away with it. The potentially superfluous character (superfluous to my project, anyhow) of the various attempts to “bring in” pregnancy for the purposes of serious Marxology via transhistorical definitions of labor quametabolism, I very much take on board. At the risk of sentimentally mirroring back her sentiments, I feel very much aligned with her purpose in raising these concerns. Equally, my utopian desire to skip ahead, as it were, to full mother-surrogate solidarity, as though the institution and naturalization of “motherhood” had already been superseded, does, in many ways, it’s true, risk becoming an abstract trans-class operation, with all the attendant problems of entertaining inter-class solidarity in the (classed) present. And perhaps I do allow the question of class, in the context of housework and specifically the class-in-formation of clinical labor, to remain too, well, complicated. My sense, as Reecia seems to espy, is that people (especially when stretched across visible workplaces and those made invisible in raced and gendered ways) can occupy more than one class at once.
The question of what is thinkable and desirable for people when we work as gestators (I would put it that way, even when that work is unpaid) is everything, and yet must be allowed to remain radically open. To gestate each other without ‘ownership’ over one another; to gestate while, in a sense, being gestated back — I don’t know exactly what this might tell us about the nature of labor and the labor of nature in general, but I know that it is important. No, I quite agree, Mark Zuckerberg “frying an egg” doesn’t make him a member of the working-class; his frying ten thousand eggs in a day wouldn’t change what he owns nor the fact that he could buy the labor of others to do it for him, ten thousand times over. At the same time, as Reecia notes, the specificity of gestating gives pause; not least, I’d say, its lengthiness, unremittingness, corporeal intensity, and relation to capitalist states’ biopolitical demand for it. Eggs aside, what if Zuckerberg (or Chan) gestated a fetus? Because the combination of constrained choice and ongoingness does seem to be a necessary subcomponent of the definition of housework qua work:in other words, the compulsion (moral and material) to fry endless eggs to reproduce one’s own and other’s bodies. It’s in that sense that unpaid egg-frying so often is work in the (unorthodox) class-specific sense named by social reproduction theorists, even though not all people who do it are proletarian. Herein lies, obviously, a decades-old controversy and puzzle, but I basically think I am persuaded — Reecia, I suspect, is not — of the legitimacy and usefulness of the 1970s call for an insurrection of house-workers, naming themselves as workers, in and against the wage.
That platform included, as I emphasize in Full Surrogacy Now, the claim that “every miscarriage is a workplace accident,” this is, that all gestators, when gestating, are doing work. I am, as I say, broadly on board with the socialist-feminist contention that “every woman is a working woman,” despite its dreadful potential for being used to exculpate capitalist women, and despite its wrongness (in that, for instance, not all “women,” in the sense meant, are women). After all, the problem of seeming to put Akanksha employees and “boutique” US surrogacy free-lancers in the same category is not unique to the industry I investigate. Survival sex-workers and “high-end” prostitutes, too, despite not being “workers” in exactly the same sense, are both — legitimately — part of the same struggle to establish sex work as work, prior to making it, along with most work, universally unnecessary. On which note: yes, to my knowledge, much like with sex work and in most places, struggles must be fought (perhaps first)by commercial surrogates over legal categorization. In fact, even in the most privileged of surrogacy labor markets, the actual work of contract gestation is not legally recognized as work: the “service” one can pay for consists in theory of someone handing over a baby that has appeared as though by magic. For this reason, among others, it is not that “Surrogacy, the book argues, should be fully recognized as a form of work” (as Maria wrote) but that gestation should. I hypothesize that it will only really be when the tyranny of work has begun to disappear from the human population as a whole, that gestating might be experienced entirely as a matter of not-work.
At the end of his intensely moving response, Alex raises the “lingering” matter of how “capitalism appears unable to survive without the family” (then, a question not resolved for him by Full Surrogacy Now — and indeed something that I hope many of us tackle in subsequent books). Reecia voices her agnosticism regarding this relation between capitalism and the family more explicitly; challenging me, in a perfectly comradely way, to say more in support of what appears to be my assumption that the relation in question is one of real internal co-necessity, rather than of longstanding commingling that is nevertheless contingent. I will say right away that I should have been more agnostic. I don’t know whether or not capitalism (or something worse than capitalism) could mutate away from its “family” form, such that no system of biological kin-exclusivity is operative any longer, but class — and wage — exploitation still is. I do know that such kinship logic has to go, regardless (perhaps we could begin by instating a 100% inheritance tax). Belonging to, materially relying on, and being cared for primarily by one’s bio-relatives (or one’s in-laws), is a terrible, unfair, sadistic system. I sense we are agreed on that, and I appreciate the corrective, where my claims may have strayed into deterministic ones about the intrinsic character of capital I am under-equipped to evidence. Someone better equipped, for the record, is the sociologist Michelle O’Brien, who has a forthcoming mammoth article entitled “To Abolish the Family” forthcoming in Endnotes volume 5. O’Brien distinguishes between three eras in the history of working-class generational reproduction under the regime of capital, across two continents, and has much to say about the intertwinement of capitalist development and the development of the family. But one of the many points she makes I think it is worth quoting here is that:
“The single-wage-earner family norm divided the respectable, white working-class from the lumpenproletariat, from queers, and from black life under the terror of Jim Crow.” (O’Brien forthcoming).
In other words, even if capitalism does not depend on the family, perhaps communist struggle depends on abolishing it.
The family, Reecia says, is “already queered a bit” (a point not far removed from Will’s friend’s claim that family abolition is, to some extent, already here) — so, do we know for sure that the family has to go, and that it can’t be totally queered? I am sincerely ambivalent about what Reecia has in mind when she says “already queered a bit”: are we talking about when men do half or more than half of the mothering-labor in a private double-income bio-parenting couple-form? Or when, for example, house mothers in the sex-working trans community set up shared dwellings that serve as permanent refuges for youth dispossessed not only from their families but from most formal job-markets? Both types of phenomena are positive, but I don’t know if the former really departs from contemporary capitalism’s prescribed template for social reproduction, since it still ensures that this reproduction of labor-power is happening privately and to the end of, well, productive work. Nor do positive distributive changes internal to the conjugal household help us collectively depart from those dangerous logics of genetic property, of blood(and soil) and entitlement and inheritance and biological identity and fear and compatriotism, which Paul talked about. To undo this, I think we really need to understand the racial class project that was the invention of the nuclear family in the first place: a (white) fictional image of an autonomous “natural” cell of self-valorizing property, built off the backs of enslaved people by means of constructing them as genderless and “kinless,” while rendering their labors (as surrogates, if you will, creating that family in its concrete existence, from outside of the family photograph) as invisible. Because that chiasmic system, as Hortense Spillers teaches, is why queer and/or black and/or proletarian and/or “families” have not, historically, reliably been families; and why, I would argue, migrant families are split and brutalized at the US border by one of the armed wings of a state that is all about “family values.”
What really matters to me (and what your fantastic remarks — Reecia’s and everyone else’s — have helped me clarify with myself), is the abolishment of the isolated privatization of human misery: the radical scarcity and overwork that is born of the logic of marriage and of family. I hope I am not being facetious when I say: I don’t understand how a totally queered family could still be a family — or, at least, an exemplar of “the” family. The destruction of the structural pressure and compulsion to “do” this particular mode of organization of the labor of self-making and re-making (where binary gender and a host of other forms of subjectivation are currently inculcated, for the purposes of accumulation) would satisfy me. If people then still want, for some reason — after those noxious partners “capitalism” “white supremacy” and “patriarchy” are done away with — to play at being stressed, joy-starved mummies and daddies who abuse children by treating them as “theirs” and imposing various blackmails and disciplines on them, then I will be, well, very surprised. I do think this question is the heart of the whole matter, and it is why I sometimes depart from calling this thing we want to abolish “the family,” and instead use “private nuclear household” or some such formulation. Because what I have always meant by “abolition of the family” is akin to what O’Brien means: namely, “positive supersession.” Likewise, when Ruthie Wilson Gilmore talks about abolition, as she likes to stress, she is talking about a movement of building and proliferation, not an act simply of erasure and destruction. So: (real) surrogacy against (capitalist) feminism, and (real)feminism against (capitalist) surrogacy: FULL FAMILY NOW!
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