The A in Family

In order to create a bridge between self-determining individuals and community people need family. Whomever it’s comprised of; whether the ties are blood or choice, we are shaped and supported throughout our whole lives by family.

I struggle with the family aspect of being an anarchist precisely most of the family I have are not radicals. The people who would bail me out of jail or visit me everyday in the hospital or cook me dinner if I had a baby don’t understand anti-capitalist libertarianism. But I love them, and must somehow bridge myself into my community with this “foreign” family.

How do I do this? I find more people within my community to take on those roles. I put more of myself into my affinity groups than just the work that needs to be done. I double up on role models, so that I have my grandfather of blood and my grandfather of radical faerie empowerment.

A century ago in the States, family was several generations thick, several degrees of cousins wide and capable of adopting orphans, “godchildren” and unmarried friends. With the rise of industrial labor, families changed as they moved to find work. Developers created single family housing for the masses, and the suburbs were born. From the fifties onward, media and the economy have impressed that the fam is just ma, pa, your siblings and the dog. Moral conservatives who fight for a return to “family values” are responding to this degeneration of support networks. They just offer alternatives unpalatable to many queer, open or radical people.

Anarchist family, for me, is the multigenerational network of people who support, teach, challenge, love, encourage, rely on and accompany us through parts or all of our lives. We make a family of our hearts when our blood kin–by death, distance or dysfunction–can’t be with us. In short, who would you cry with?

I have heard people lament over the imbalance of generations within anarchism, within every scene. People note that we lack a connected community of older (like, post-menopausal) radicals who can offer wisdom and tactics, as well as children with whom we practice our consensus and commitment to self-determination. Yes, radicals have kids and yes, radicals are grandparents but our movements are still youth centered. Communities of mature radicals won’t intersect completely with communities of younger radicals—socially or politically—so we must find other ground to meet on. We can appreciate the experience and company of people at a different stage of life without needing to be the same. If we generally lack role models and youth we foster, how are we to improve our practice of anarchism with each generation?

The healthiest forms of non blood anarchist family I’ve seen are collective houses that intentionally interweave their lives. Besides having physical space to gather, houses have the informal contact that make intimacy possible and support easier to ask for. It can be easier to break out of loneliness when you’ve only got to go downstairs to dinner.

Outside of houses, long-term collectives are the anarchist structure best suited to “family building.” We had a big transformation last year at Slingshot, when we finally spent more time hanging out than working on the paper. When life’s serious shit descended on several of us, it wasn’t awkward to ask for support. In fact, it would have been awkward not to ask for support. That was when I knew that my family had grown.

By no means do anarchists have a monopoly on chosen families. Churches, unions and social clubs have taken the place of blood family, especially in the twentieth century. A family can be created by any group with affinity, given that it satisfies certain needs. First, people must be held together by a purpose. In blood families, it can be as simple as obligation, but it can be complex. People must have incentive to care for one another, and the care must be reciprocal. Often, we are cared for by family in our youth and then return that love later on when the people who foster us get older. There must also be space and time for regular intersection and a culture to hand down. Families have stories of origin, and of the joys and sufferings shared, as well as a reason why they are unique and important. The stories may change, but they must be passed on.

The public debate on family doesn’t address our need for support in the face of economic or emotional privation. When the religious right talk about “family values” and “preserving family,” the overtones of sexism and heterosexism make debating that much more difficult. However, addressing the fears about love and support are simple. If a family is held together by patriarchy and guilt, it probably isn’t satisfying to be a part of. We can never be obliged to love and we can never regulate true family. We will find a way to be ourselves within our blood families or we will find families that love us as we are or we will do both. Maybe so many people pass through radical scenes but settle for boring jobs and weekends mowing the lawn because there is no family ready-made to be had around here, just the ingredients for one tailor-made. They fall prey to the mainstream narrative that family is a little nuclear clique. We must each choose (mutually) our mentors, our teachers, our sibling-peers and the people we will encourage in turn.

Let your redefinition of family be a step toward a more radical world. Invite fellow radicals closer, and share, in small ways at first, anarchism with your existing family. Think about what culture your families have given you and what you want to pass on. We need to hand different stories and values to the next generation, and first we must make them family.

I wanted to write about family because of my twelve cousins. We played and feasted together every Sunday until I was twelve. They taught me fun, cooperation, mischief, solidarity, and love. And though we now gather only once every few years, they are people who know me beneath the skin and love me still. It’s never hard to come back together. I find relief knowing that they are in the world, and hopefully it is mutual.