By I Steve
Identification of organizations and social circles as “families” in radical culture is common. Since families tend to live together, the identification feels natural in collective, cooperative, or squatted houses. Insecure hippies try to label everyone as their family, so the metaphor pervades food distribution, ecological direct action, and so on.
Many of us are outcasts and deviants who couldn’t relate to our normal families of origin. Many of us were rejected by our families for being queer. And/or never had anything like a functional family, leaving a resentment and a craving.
Is this natural—did small bands of related humans build broader networks, clans and tribes to create a society grounded in affinity? Is it harmless, a sort of platonic puppy-love that eases rather than obstructs intentional social organization?
Interestingly, the family model pervades all society. In my college class on gender, a guest speaker on workplace sexism told us of a corporate culture where the family metaphor informally buttressed submissive roles for women. How could family be bad, thought 20-year-old Steve. Family identity is key for many marginalized groups, from the Manson Family to the Mafia to the Evangelical Christian La Familia terrorist drug cartel.
On the other hand, The Communist Manifesto calls for the abolition of the family. This is partly about opposition to inherited wealth, but also for society as a whole taking responsibility for the nurturing and development of children, rather than leaving the task to perhaps isolated incompetents. I’m not against family in that way: I promised the gods I would love and cherish my family if I didn’t have to adopt a metaphorical one.
Indeed, rather than express how we come to love each other as we struggle together in the struggle, the family model is a red flag for when we bring our family of origin baggage to our political culture—unspoken rules passed on without words from the Middle Ages; molestation and other unresolved traumas; dinner-table racism whispered as the realism behind the idealism; and sexism, misogyny, rape culture, and sexism.
Embracing family dynamics in radical organization produces a culture of anti-accountability, favored by those who will lose from accountability. It is a key source of the informal leaderships, which are not countered by “structure. ”(I’ve seen too many apostles of “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” manipulate formal process via their unaccountable informal leadership roles).
Our exertion and reception of informal leadership is rooted in family roles we learned before our memories. Someone in the group as the matriarch or patriarch, another is the emotionless overachiever, another the bitter scapegoat, and another as the family clown (aw …)
Rejecting the family metaphor doesn’t mean our political relationships must be cold and businesslike. Showing up together as functional adults doing important work is empowering. If we came from families where trust was an illusion, real solidarity is found in responsible peer relationships.
Of course we can’t just leave our family baggage behind. Rather than act it out, though, we can support self-care for family dynamics just as we would for a comrade with a physical illness. Instead of rehearsing familiar family formulae—including labeling the deviant as the insane family secret—we can invest in radical approaches to mental health and deconstruct psycho-abilism.
We live in a traumatized world. The damages from war, colonization and genocide are passed on through families. But our movements can start a different story.