This Infamous Proposal

The call for family abolition is a demand for queer joy and a blossoming of other, better ways of being together.

In Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), a party scene marks the film’s transition between its first act, in which it is a comedic caper, and its second act, where it becomes a tense thriller. (Later, a second party will occasion another shift into slasher horror).

In the first party, the Kim family gather to celebrate a hustle, having successfully infiltrated the household of the wealthy Park family by having them hire one member after another (each pretending to be unrelated to the next). With the Parks heading on a camping trip for the sake of their spoiled son, the Kims are left with a sizable ruling class home (liquor and all) at their mercy. For a family living in a sub-basement, this moment is a jubilant one, a triumph after the victory of the hustle.

But then, suddenly, the party seems to sour. Nominal head of household Kim Ki-taek takes offence at a remark by his wife, Park Chung-sook and clenches his fist. He looms over her, forearm pulled back, as Park Chung-sook cowers.

For the most part, the drama of the film could be called post-Oedipal. Park is long past his time as an active patriarch. Long-term unemployment had caused him to fall into passivity, with his son Choi Woo-shik taking over the role of hustle co-ordinator. If anything, his father plays a somewhat bumbling role in proceedings; on several occasions he almost reveals the ruse, and is only rescued bythe total obliviousness and disinterest of his bourgois paternal counterpart Lee Sun-kyun when dealing with the lower orders.

In the face of this sudden re-emergence of Kim-as-patriarch, both his children seem shocked, unable to respond. Eventually, after a drawn-out moment, both parents begin to laugh.

This moment is distinctively non-performative: exactly through acting out the roles of macho emasculated husband and cowering battered wife, the distance the Kims have knowingly established between themselves and the norms of patriarchal relations are made quite plain.1 They distance themselves from domestic violence exactly as they act it out.

The Kims don’t live entirely beyond the everyday brutality of capitalist families, but its reappearance in a mock form to trick the next generation, its surfacing as play, deflates the memory mercilessly. Park Chung-sook explains that any actual such incident would see her whacking her husband. She even underlines the point by mocking Kim with cheerful dehumanisation: in a heated moment, she remarks, her husband would flee “like a cockroach”.

Ultimately this chiding does not quite ring true: while it’s true Kim goes underground in the most literal way by the films close, rather than flee from trouble he responds to slaying Lee Sun-kyun for his visible disgust at those of his social station. Rather than fleeing like a cockroach, he serves as a source of divine violence,2 offering a somewhat belated act of proletarian solidarity: one patriarch striking down another.

This act is clearly impulsive, and does nothing to reinstate Kim as a patriarch. He flees while his daughter bleeds out, and in a narrative loop his son ends it much where he began: still dreaming of hustling his way to rescuing his father.

While capturing the moments of tenderness and making-do kindly, Parasite ultimately shows up the limits of the ‘good family’ in capitalist circumstances. As charming and ingenious as their hustle may be, it allows a relative jockeying for position. Glimpses of ingenuity and the thrill of the hustle, speckling the otherwise unremitting reality of proletarian life.

The Kims are at once intimately aware of the violence which drenches patriarchal relations, and find the idea of personally enacting them laughable. The safe haven from rupturing violence is only ever partial, even in the case of a ‘good family’. While the Kims cope together, they can provide one another no salvation. By the end of Parasite, they cannot escape the logic of these relations, nor the outcome of reproducing themselves as a capitalist workforce. This fate both closes out the film, and runs throughout it.

In recent years, several communist thinkers have attempted to revive the Communist Manifesto’s call for the abolition of the bourgeois family.

Following the more recent example of US prison abolitionism, we have argued for replacing the current convention of upbringings being divvied up between private households (in reality using extensive use of dedicated childcare firms, and paid arrangements with care labourers).

Abolition of the family in this sense is a provocative but positive strategy: we argue for the replacement of private households with structuring processes of direct provision, offering key elements of upbringings—from meeting nutritional needs to literacy—in a systematic and contextually over-arching fashion.

This is a vision of communist relations as starting with the overturning of the damage done by the existing domination of patriarchal relations and racialising institutions over our upbringings.

We call for abolishing the family not as a means of disregarding the tireless efforts made by proletarians to preserve the wellbeing of their relatives, but in awareness that these personal struggles alone will never serve to emancipate us as a class.

A minor trend in contemporary socialist politics has responded to these anti-family slogans with a combination of alarm, ferocious dismissal, and apparent incomprehension.

According to these leftist defenders of existing household norms, the family is a bastion beyond the globally expansive ‘neoliberalisation’ of economic relations, a realm beyond prices and the indignities of wage labour. Family abolitionism from this view is a cruel strategy, seeking to strip already exploited workers of the final scraps of solace they can scrabble together.

To those familiar with debates around communism and the state, there will be a striking commonality apparent here. Social democrats yearn for an uncomplicated state, which provides comprehensive education and post offices without an attached apparatus for endless warfare, suppression of urban unrest, or bloody acts of active espionage.

For social democrats, there is a state which nourishes, which provides reliable structures, which might yet be redeemed.

And in just the same way, they dream too of a family that provides a safe haven from the workplace. An enclave beyond profit making, hustling, and spreadsheets. A beleaguered but still noble unit, unique in providing solace and piecemeal refuge.

In other words, a form of the family that barely any of us have recognised, that exactly none of us have ever known.

Communists reject the idea of any partition within the state, insisting, as we irritatingly do, on the tethering of state provisioning with the chaotic but ultimately rather predictable flows of exploitation in the context of world-straddling imperialism. If certain territories enjoy an extensive luxury state for all citizens, we cannot set aside for one moment those who lie beyond the remit of these few polities.

And so, too, we reject the family as an institution. We do not divide the harm its pathology-inducing drive to replicate itself across generations causes from the nursing and rearing it simultaneously performs. We do not seek to ‘take pressure off’ the family, or resculpt it. We do not have in mind its purification as an unmuddied provider of love. We instead work towards seeing the family surpassed.

This is not to say that we overlook the moments of comfort, intuitive solidarity, support and intimacy that arise in private households. Or that our proposed revolutionary movement is one defined by total solitude, and denial of the kindness we have both received and offer under our current circumstances.

It’s that we work in full awareness that an unprecedented break in how upbringings are delivered is needed for communist relations to come to exist at all, let alone if they are to survive. It’s that we see the role of the family as a procession of wealth and privileges as integral to its current form.

Already, even with only a handful of communists prepared to endorse this position, smears and dismissals have quickly amounted. In one case we were accused by a white activist of disregarding traditions and outlooks from people of colour.

This is a curious line of attack: all the family abolitionist communists I know of cite as key to their thinking two articles by Black feminists writing in the 1980s: Angela Davis’ The Approaching Obsolence of Housework (which argues that domestic labour should not be divvied up ‘more fairly’ between the sexes, but instead done away with altogether through division between industrialised teams), and Hortense Spillers’ Papa’s Baby, Mama’s Maybe (which explores exactly how family relations between mother and daughter, which for Black Americans amounted to the inheritance of dispossession, caused a fork between US experiences of womanhood).

In truth, family abolitionism is an eccentric and fringe stance for revolutionary utopians of whatever ethnicity. It seems that this twinning of family abolitionist politics and whiteness is more a typical move towards dismissal, a reaction that indicates the theory’s task of unsettling has already been achieved. And why should we be surprised? As Marx and Engels had it:

Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

This is an argument that has always caused alarm and provoked misunderstandings. So let’s clarify. How can this alarming position be justified? Why are any number of communists committing to a position which seemed to have faded from common view? We’re best placed to tackle the question of to whom the slogan ‘abolish the family!’ best appeals through considering the split between heterosexuals and the rest of us.

The family’s role in ensuring capitalist workforces are produced generation after generation in truth never detaches from the disciplinary struggles to snuff out queer development. For queers (of whatever given flavour), families appear far more often as a primary antagonist. Lovers have to be concealed, lingo rapidly switched up, awkward encounters avoided or allowed to drag out.

To befriend other queers is usually to share this weight. Getting to know each other provides infinite joys, but also very quickly leads to our exchanging tales of remarkably similar traumas (and too often seeing their legacies play out across our non-heterosexual bonds, too). Tales of rejection, threats, and abandonment are so commonplace that they have lost their power to leave us truly shaken. Bad faith and repressed tedium can come to reign in these encounters, as our friends return again and again to find themselves injured in ways they refuse to predict. We find ourselves raging at those who’ve done most to pull us free from heterosexuality.

A story of conflict with one’s birth family from a fellow queer unfolds with familiar beats: barbed catchphrases that sound just like ones we ourselves received, patterns that heap indignity one atop the next without any apparent end in sight.

We find ourselves nursing friends (or, often enough, vague acquaintances) through breakdowns which they experience as a unique loss, and which we encounter as one bead in a lengthy chain. At times this work is uniquely life-giving. At others it is tiresome.

Often it appears like the harshest treatments can be disguised blessings: at least those who display their phobia with unabashed force allow for more rapid separation, for immediate flight. In subtler cases, dislodging those who’ve gone through a lifetime of denigration can be a painstaking process.

From this position, the relations which end up ‘privatised’ by delegation to private households lose most of their particularity: while manipulative relatives frame their targets as freakish, and circumstances as always unique, through the work of queer support, simplicity and similarity become apparent.

From this view, the family appears as Saturn, feasting upon his young.

So for queers, the prospect of putting an end to the domination of private households can come to seem less extreme and more hopeful: to abolish the family would be to put an end to queer life as a succession of already blazing fires that must be extinguished as best we can. Intuitively, we long for an end to the procession of privatised torment and ineffectual displays of disciplinary force that make one baby queen’s plight seem almost interchangeable with the next.

In short, to abolish the family means to put an end to the farce of most queers being raised by heterosexuals.

And it also means allowing the relations which already blossom between us to become unchecked. Already, we offer each other prolonged bouts of joy, rarefied skills, and kinds of support that we’re uniquely placed to share. We don’t do this in order to create sturdy forms that will outlast generations, but exactly to enjoy moments of community with our fellow exiles.

It’s also for this reason that so many queers have responded on a visceral level to the Buttigiegs (Chasten and Pete) taking to the international stage.

One rather excitable theorist went so far as to disown them altogether, declaring the photos of them as ‘heterosexual’. But let’s accept them instead as a wholly homosexual rearticulation of the same property-minded logic that has come to define what we might from one view call the ruling class, and from another whiteness.

What’s revolting about the Buttigiegs is not only that they have cast themselves as palatable custodians of the procession of property relations across generations (although surely, they have). But that they also estimated that this required a refusal, a resistance to the freakish relations and strange ideas that have always filled queer life.

One can imagine the unease with which Pete would interact with even the fishiest of drag queens, his lips tightening as his peripherals comb the room for a treacherous smartphone camera.

It’s traditional for queers to fret that the rising tide of tolerance will bleach away queer life, that growing acceptance will spawn a million Buttigiegs.

But it’s perhaps better to take this gay Langley man and his docile, longsuffering husband as exemplars of what the opium of family relations offers us. Solace, for sure, but at the cost of being continuously doped senseless.

The kinship on which communist relations rely will tease us in another direction: drawing from the lessons of hustles and community solidarity, and pushing them through into a new context, where the harm done to us by our families is not only mitigated, but actively overcome.

‘Transgender Marxism’, an anthology of new essays on transgender experiences and class politics, edited by Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke, can be pre-ordered here.

  1. This term belongs to Sara Ahmed, who used it quite differently, albeit in an interlocking context. 

  2. In his Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin differentiates between mythic and divine violence: “Mythic violence is bloody power over mere life for its own sake; divine violence is pure power over all life for the sake of the living. The first demands sacrifice; the second accepts it.” (Walter Benjamin. 1996. Selected Writings Vol 1 1913-1926. Edited by Marcus Bullock & Michael W Jennings. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, pp.236-52) 


Jules Joanne Gleeson (@socialrepro)

Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She is the editor with Elle O’Rourke of Transgender Marxism.