June 26, 2024
Interview with Sophie Lewis
Sophie Lewis is an Anglo-German writer living in Philadelphia and the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, and Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, both published by Verso Books. Sophie’s essays appear in the London Review of Books, The New York Times, Harper’s, n+1, The Point, and The Drift, and her third book, Enemy Feminisms, is forthcoming from Haymarket Books. You can preorder it here.

For many younger feminist readers, including the editors of this magazine, Lewis’s work has been a critical introduction to the idea of family abolition and to contemporary and inclusive forms of Marxist feminism. We spoke to her for our inaugural interview because the ideas she works on have been so crucial and formative to the vision we hope to embody of contemporary literature and thought. We were impressed by and grateful for her passion and clarity and optimism as well as her breadth and depth of knowledge.

This interview was conducted via email.

Angel Food: I was introduced to your work, like many people, when I read Full Surrogacy Now. It felt tremendously inspiring as a very young woman trying to navigate the possibility of reproductive [maybe specifically gestational?] labor and I know you’ve gotten many such responses, but also quite a bit of backlash. You also wrote a very beautiful (and very personal) essay about your own mother and relationship to motherhood in Salvage in 2020 that laid out some of your own stakes in this work. Could you speak about what the reception to this work has brought you in terms of community and audience and how it has shaped your more recent writing?

Sophie Lewis: People send me pictures of their copies of Full Surrogacy Now in their birthing suites and maternity wards! It’s incredible, and in fact, it’s what enabled me—spiritually and materially—to become a writer. It has brought me passionate and comradely connections all over the world. At the same time, yes, it’s brought me a dim awareness of an avowedly anti-utopian (or otherwise hostile) response from the right end of the political spectrum, as well as the more conservative parts of the left. These individuals disagree strongly with my framing of the communistic principle of ‘full surrogacy’; the idea that everyone can and must mother.

This is not a criticism of you, but everyone always asks about the ‘backlash’ against family-abolitionism. I understand why. Some people have very visceral reactions to the phrase ‘abolition of the family’ especially if they’ve never heard it before. And it makes perfect sense to fear a discourse that criticizes the inherent poverty of the family (as a way of organizing care) if your family is, in a very material sense, all you have. It also sounds awful if you understand the word ‘abolition’ to mean some kind of destruction imposed from above by fiat, rather than a transformation manifested collectively by turning the world upside-down and inside-out.

From another point of view, though, it’s hardly controversial at all. Like, of course the family-form must be part of the abolition of the present state of things (i.e., communization). How could it not be part of such a process? By the same token, family abolition wasn’t always so unheard-of; it actually has a robust 200-year western history, as I try to sketch briefly in Abolish the Family. I’d even say that the positive supersession of the private nuclear household has always been the proper object of women’s liberation and queer freedom struggle.

I hopefully make clear in that pamphlet that there are few words so misused as the word abolition. Contrary to what is often implied, the legal criminalization of the transatlantic slave trade and thereafter of chattel slavery by western nations in the 19th century did not by itself realize the goal of unmaking the society that had enslaved—that could enslave—human beings. Yet the latter is what true abolition requires: a rebirthing of the world such that the ‘humanism’ embodied in the slave economy is at once destroyed, transformed, and realized for the first time. (In that sense, the struggle is ongoing!) It is a struggle not only to get rid of—let’s say—prisons, as to get rid of the world that could think of prisons as a way of meeting humanity’s need for justice. So, abolition will have been realized when a system of real justice is operative. The horizon of care-deprivatization only destroys care in the way that slave-emancipation destroyed humanism: it flips it by universalizing and overhauling it, thereby realizing its promise, such that a form of kinship uncoerced by economics becomes possible at last. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, the task is ‘to change one thing: everything.’

You also mentioned one of the very personal essays I wrote about my mother after she died of cancer in November 2019. Thank you. Yes. I could not have predicted that “Mothering Against the World” and “Momrades Against Motherhood” would strike such a chord with people (e.g., it’s been translated for instance into Spanish by a transfeminist-Marxist who lives in Zaragoza; and collective of anarchists in Texas made a zine out of the text). It’s an essay about many densely interwoven things, including death-doula-ing, ‘xenohospitality,’ and the question of what makes the labor of mothering potentially anti-productive, anti-reproductive, or even revolutionary in the sense theorized by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams. It’s also about the violence and the burden of an individual maternal care strike. I say in that essay that “whereas, in the past, I have on occasion wished my mother dead, for the past decade or so it has been hard for me to condemn her outright for opting out of the job (of mothering me) that capitalist society was compelling her to do in such a lonely way.” I simply did not anticipate or realize (until after I’d published the text) that my experiences were far from unique, and are in fact shared by so many people. Perhaps that’s because pain tends to make people a bit narcissistic almost by necessity. But these connections have in turn educated and enabled me to move onto other things. So the cycle, I assume, continues.

AF: It seems like there is a renewed interest in social reproduction right now. I’ve read a slew of articles in mainstream magazines like The Atlantic and The Washington Post about why marriage and monogamy and childbirth are at risk of disappearing, as well an effort to bring back people like Christopher Lasch. Could you speak to this moral panic about traditional marriage and what is fueling it?  

SL: The stakes of Making Marriage Great Again are no less than apocalyptic, as the title of a new book by sociologist Brad Wilcox makes clear—Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization (Broadside Books, 2023). In the UK context, we hear in The New Statesman that people in Gen Z long for a political offer that satisfies their nostalgia for the things they’ve never known: marriage, parochial life and national pride. One might counter-suggest that the key objects of longing are: humane rent, a living wage, a liveable biosphere. But no. Here, it’s a spiritual problem. ‘The American heart is closing,’ Wilcox melodramatically proclaims about the demise of a contractual norm that was, as you know, only extremely recently conceptualized as having much to do with the heart at all. (Regardless, columnist David Brooks is a Brad Wilcox superfan.) Wilcox laments that people have stopped viewing marriage as the ‘cornerstone’ of their lives and started viewing it as the ‘capstone.’ As does Ross Douthat. People ought instead to ‘prioritize marriage.’ We youngsters ought to study Eliot and Austen: ‘please read books on how to decide whom to marry’ (I have to snort up my coffee at this suggestion, by Brooks, that Middlemarch and Persuasion simply endorse the compulsion to wed). We’re at the point where other magazines are naming the return of the ‘marriage cure.’ ‘Why Is the Pundit Class Suddenly So Marriage-Obsessed?’ wonders, for instance, Politico.

We’ve also seen a cluster of trivial, prominent society features and memoirs about wealthy straight people doing ethical non-monogamy, which similarly then somehow gets analyzed on the ‘trad’ left as a wholesale epochal shift towards ‘narcissism.’ And according to one of the meta commentaries diagnosing this supposed trend, the advent of bourgeois ‘poly’ culture was predicted by the ex-Marxist historian you mention—Kit Lasch—in 1977 when he warned, in Haven in a Heartless World, that the marriage-based family was under siege by a nefarious, ascendant social order allergic to all norms, ‘inner restraints, inhibitions, and ‘hangups.”’ The writer in question, Tyler Austin Harper, riffs on Lasch by scoffing at the gay liberationism of both yester-year and today as though that movement was an individualistic, merely psychology-focused fad (as opposed to a utopian struggle to deprivatize care and sexuality). What, taunts Harper, ‘could offer more liberation than throwing off the constraints of one of humanity’s oldest institutions, monogamous marriage?’ It’s not a sincere question, I know. But Harper might benefit from learning how, ever since the utopian socialist Charles Fourier first pondered capitalism’s reliance on the private conjugal kitchen over 200 years ago, plenty of decidedly non-‘liberal elite’ thinkers have offered real answers to that very question.

I can’t help but grimace whenever matrimony is framed by people like this guy Harper as a method for ‘defying liberal elites’ because, as far as I’m concerned, it is precisely liberal elites who always subject me to the heaviest barrage of pro-marriage propaganda. In recent years, there have been NYT op-eds advocating for staying in unhappy marriages even when you ‘loathe’ your spouse, op-eds suggesting ‘experimenting with polyamory’ in order to make it all a little more bearable in your marriage, and op-eds extolling the virtues of marrying aged ‘23 or 24.’ So it really blows my mind, the way these social-democratic wags always try to link declining marriage rates to ‘individualism’ or ‘selfishness.’ What action could be more antisocial than swearing, as an individual, to ‘forsake all others’ in favor of one other person? Yet, oh, an ethic of civic or communitarian responsibility is somehow in play, it is implied. Marriage is good for ‘the’ children, we’re relentlessly told (compared to what? is what I always want to know.) Marriage is good for a man’s happiness (it is probably bad for a woman’s, is the unspoken part). It’s good for bank accounts (it makes it harder, unfortunately, to ever stop earning money). It ‘civilizes’ cads and entitles unwaged mothers to certain protective assets, ergo, it’s good for society (but which vision of society?) Such are the going articles of faith about the set of state-sanctioned property rights in question.

You’d think, from the state of the discourse, that disdain for marriage was threatening the very fabric of the West, but in fact, the pressure to aspire to a procreative, propertied, monogamous couple-form remains overwhelming. Despite all the obsessing, the family ethic remains depressingly intact. Three-quarters of Americans have been married by the time they’re 40; and many more of us cohabitate with partners. It sometimes seems to me that most TV streaming options, from Love is Blind to The Golden Bachelor, involve watching people tie the knot. Meanwhile, the higher cost of living associated with not being coupled up (the so-called ‘singles tax’) is surely one factor behind a turn towards ‘mommunes’ and co-living. Seen in this light, the grim insistence on misdiagnosing the ‘problem’ of falling birthrates—surely that’s what this is underlyingly about—by pointing to a culture of egoic commitment-phobia, instead of to the ever-increasing economic impossibility of the nuclear household, feels wishful.

Why not return, then, to the radical critique of the couple-form? ‘Isolated in couples, we are weak, the way society wants us to be,’ wrote the Gay Liberation Front of London in 1971, but ‘society cannot put us down so easily if we fuse together. We have to get together, understand one another, live together.’ I hold these truths to be self-evident. However, ten years after the GLF published its manifesto, they and their wider leftist movement were defeated. In 1982, when the feminists Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh wrote their book advocating for family abolition, The Anti-Social Family, they were writing in a very different climate. Nonetheless Barrett and McIntosh persisted in identifying marriage as the well-spring of both familism and individualism. ‘Those who defend marriage as what people want and need,’ they said, ‘must explain then why it has to be so massively privileged by social policy, taxation, religious endorsement and the accolade of respectability.’ Can the pro-marriage left answer their question in 2024? I think not.

All in all, I would link the panic to the panic around the so-called Great Resignation or Big Quit. I think marriage today is strongly integrated into what Kathi Weeks calls the ‘work society.’ In other words, what marriage is ‘for’ is to serve as an ‘aspiration’ which, in turn, makes people go to work once achieved. As an alternative to demanding a federal living wage guarantee, or socialized healthcare, or universal basic income, or subsidies for collective intergenerational living, or public kitchens, or 24/7 free childcare, or common spaces for the formation of friendships, the call to Bring Marriage Back serves as a cheap policy proposal that can always, always, be framed as an unpopular opinion or a hard truth, even if it is anything but.

AF: There is also a resurgence of interest right now in second wave feminism (both in TERF form and in heteropessimist form). Could you speak to how this relates to more progressive feminist movements and what is shaping it? 

SL: In terms of that characterization of the revival you’re talking about, I immediately want to disagree, because for me it really depends what people mean by the phrase ‘second wave.’ First I’ll say that I’m not even sure I would place or trace ‘heteropessimisism’—or heterofatalism as I tend to call it, following Asa Seresin’s evolving commentary—back to that same tradition at all. Heterofatalism seems to me, actually, like a substantively non-feminist tradition: a discursive mode that departs from the practice of female complaint (itself definitely key to feminism) but extrapolates into a completely anti-utopian, fatalistic direction.

I’m ongoingly advocating for looking back to the ‘second wave’ of western feminism. But despite many scholar-activists’ efforts to rewrite the shoddy historiography of our supposedly transphobic ‘foremothers’ in feminism, there still seems to be a widespread and deeply mistaken idea that there were almost no trans women, almost no Black, of colour, or Indigenous women, no real critiques of ontological sex, and no labour solidarity in the women’s liberation movement of sixty years ago. When in fact, the 1960s and ’70s in the U.S. were the era of Wages Against Housework, Combahee River, Bread and Roses, Frances Beal, STAR House, New York Radical Women, and Audre Lorde, all of whom are extraordinary forebears and resources for today’s communist and abolition feminism. And TERFism, specifically, was a come-lately and extremely marginal strand of the ‘wave’ you’re asking about! As you would expect, I’m totally hostile to the latter self-styled ‘radical feminism,’ which historian Alice Echols suggests we calls ‘cultural feminism.’ I am very critical of people like Gloria Steinem, and I’m at best skeptical of the misandry revival around Andrea Dworkin that started up in 2018 (I’ve written an essay, in The Point, on this topic). But it’s vital to recognize that our ‘foremothers’ were mostly not TERFs. Rather, trans-exclusionary thought emerged out the shattered remnants of the New Left, as a paranoid faction of the diverse, defeated ’70s gender and sexual liberation ecology. With its wounded attachment to the suffering-based femaleness it purports to celebrate, it was very different from other strands of ‘second wave’ women’s liberation.

AF: You also wrote a very powerful essay for Tank about child liberation called “Of Innocence and Experience.” In it, you write that “it is only on the fringes of the left today that one hears any mention at all of child sovereignty, juvenile body-autonomy, or youth liberation.” Even on the mainstream of the left, there does seem to be resistance to the idea of child liberation and broad hostility to youth. Could you speak to how this manifests and why this is such a taboo area still? 

SL: The figure of the trans child stands in for all children right now. The trans child, by virtue of her sexual or gender self-knowledge, resists incorporation into the template of child sexual innocence (read: cisheterosexual national fertility), in whose name the political right or Mumsnet or QAnon fights to secure the future of the present state of things. The cissexual state views trans children as posing an imminent threat to the proprietary sanctities of ‘parental rights.’ The anxiety goes something like this: will these children jeopardize the gross national product? Are they alien visitors from another planet, or scions of strange new species? If so, is that a good thing? Can anybody really say that socially reproducing the present state of things is a desirable goal? So, then, what do we dream of? Which forms of life do we want to continue, and which might we end? Do we really want to ‘secure a future’ (to steal some of the Nazi Fourteen Words) for this world? And so on. The stakes are vertiginous! Then again, I’m repeating myself here, but: fifty years ago, in the western gay and women’s movements, it was not uncommon to hear children advocated for as the poorest and most oppressed population on earth: a group in need of suffrage, guaranteed basic income, and physical (even erotic) autonomy. I think, today, if we want to think about the war on juvenile transness properly, we do of course have to think about transphobia, queerphobia, misogyny and antifeminism, BUT we also have to approach the fight through the lens of children’s freedom. The situation demands that we go beyond rescuing kids to trusting and abetting them as political actors, taking seriously their analysis and leadership on matters ranging from fostercare and ‘family policing’ to sex and ‘independent mobility’—the right to the city.

AF: I have heard you speak about the scholarly tradition in which you position yourself, but is there a feminist literary tradition that particularly inspires you?

SL: Whether it comes to ‘scholarship’ or ‘literature,’ I especially love hilarious and/or horny writers like Shulamith Firestone, Jordy Rosenberg, Donna Haraway, or Amber Hollibaugh, including body horror like Gretchen Felker-Martin’s and Alison Rumfitt’s. I love chest-hurtingly sad, revolutionarily hopeful, species-promiscuous and genre-bending books like Lola Olufemi’s Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, Anne Boyer’s The Undying, and Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen. There are too many to list. I haven’t thought about this list very hard.

AF: With the widespread criminalization of reproductive rights, trans healthcare, and civil liberties, it can feel like writing is an increasingly futile tool against the state. How do you see the role of art and scholarship in this world we are living in and its connection to other forms of organizing and dissent? 

SL: It’s interesting, isn’t it: everyone is always saying that the ‘humanities’ are in crisis, and yet, all around me I see university encampments, radical book groups, activist-archivists, people’s history teach-ins, and philosophy podcasts. Which raises the question: whose arts, whose humanities, are we talking about? Weren’t there always humanistic inquiries that went unfunded, unstaffed, unincorporated? At the same time, if you want to sustain yourself without an academic job, it’s rough out here. And yet, as critics have also noted, we are in a kind of golden age for readers, not least because of the way humanities departments have been driving critical minds (or: hemorrhaging ‘talent and cultural capital’) out into the ranks of critics writing purely for the public sphere. Critical production today is flourishing despite, or because of, the dire economic condition publishing finds itself in today. Who knows, perhaps the imperial capitalist university has already given birth to sufficient numbers of its own gravediggers. For instance… I’m a writer and critic who was cussed enough to lean out of the academic humanities far enough, as a postgraduate, to actually fall out, at which point I insisted I was perfectly fine where I was thank you very much. (Indeed—touch wood—I am, at this point, ‘fine’ as far as precarious low-income creative existences, sans dependents, go.)

Hefty doses of luck and privilege, both, hooked me up with book deals, albeit ones with no monetary advances to speak of. I’ve barely ever had what I’d describe as a job, but were I prone to wearing a belt, I could tuck no less than four humanities diplomas, including a doctorate, under it. But I’m job-free even now. I have an ad-hoc gig leading short courses on social theory (without any assessment component) online as a contractor for a non-credentialing non-profit. The age range of my students at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research is 16-78, and teaching is a joy. I cobble together a living from this, plus a $1k monthly pay-out from my Patreon, plus the meager remuneration that free-lancers who aren’t reporters can expect to receive from literary magazines. But the biggest share of my income consists of honoraria, for one-off speaking engagements, from the same humanities departments who pay their adjuncts identical sums—these being, in many cases, my senior comrades, people with kids to feed—for whole weeks of pedagogical labor.

What to make of this dynamic, wherein anti-disciplinary, non-professional humanistic thinking is invited in—and relatively handsomely waged, if only in discrete bursts—at the very ivory tower that is failing so spectacularly to take care of its own would-be professional thinkers? Also, is the type of talk I peddle part of a trend weakening academia’s grip on humanistic endeavor, or, on the contrary, helping to restore it? These are questions to which I welcome readers’ answers.