Daniel Denvir: Welcome to The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin Magazine. My name is Daniel Denvir and I’m temporarily broadcasting from Santiago de Chile, but by the time you hear this I’ll be back in the USA.
What is it that you find so disturbing about commercial surrogacy? An industry that employs women, often poor women in a poor country, to gestate fetuses carrying the genetic material of more affluent people, often in the West, to whom the baby is then transferred or maybe sold. My guest today is Sophie Lewis and she argues in her new book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, that something is deeply wrong with commercial surrogacy. But it’s just not what you might think. What’s wrong is the brute labor exploitation taking place at the reproductive crossroads of a racial global capitalist order, a system of racial capitalism that mystifies labor across the board. And that in the case of commercial surrogacy mystically celebrates brown women’s creation of “white babies.” What’s not wrong is the violation of some mythic perfect pregnancy untouched by capitalist market relations. Gestation, Lewis argues, is just one form of labor exploited under capitalism. Indeed she argues that surrogacy prohibitionists rely upon the very idealized icon of the bourgeois family that is itself an organizing principle of the commercial surrogacy market and of capitalism as a whole too.
Lewis ruthlessly criticizes every conventional belief about gestating fetuses and making families and demands that you unflinchingly analyze how capitalism dominates people’s lives across the board: in the productive sphere, in the social reproductive background, and in areas like commercial surrogacy that blur the lines between the two, making it clear that the distinction between waged work and home work is one that’s imposed by capitalism rather than given by nature. Anyhow, I promise that this interview is a fascinating and provocative one.
Thanks, and here’s Sophie Lewis, the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family from Verso. Lewis is a Philadelphia-based theorist, communist, unaffiliated PhD, affiliated with the Out of the Woods ecological writing collective, and an occasional translator, teaching part-time for the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
DD: Sophie Lewis, welcome to The Dig.
Sophie Lewis: Hi.
DD: When I first heard of international commercial surrogacy a few years ago, my initial response was that I was a bit queasy. At the risk of asking you to psychoanalyze me, what was I responding to? And also what is commercial surrogacy?
SL: Those are two good opening questions actually.
DD: Being hyper-honest there.
SL: Yeah, of course. There’s a standard definition that I think is actually good. So I won’t necessarily read it directly out from the book but I will…Let me find it. The thing you’re responding to about gestational surrogacy that makes you queasy is the illusion of an extreme denaturalization of something deeply fundamental, foundational, to nature. The ideology of nature we carry around with ourselves, or the very building blocks of our identification with our humanity, which really works through things like motherhood and where we came from. The commercial gestational surrogacy industry is dystopian in many ways. Those capitalist wage relations being extended into the province of literal baby-making. And the purpose of a commercial surrogacy arrangement is the manufacture of a neonatal human that will be passed as a kind of legal property to a buyer. “The commissioning parents” is the terminology in that industry. You don’t have to be a full-blown anti-surrogacy activist, a “surrogacy abolitionist” as some of the feminists involved call themselves, to find this on some level very repulsive, very repugnant in an almost pre-linguistic way. It’s only when you start to tease apart what’s actually going on, or rather not going on, in this industry, that you can become a bit more comfortable with the idea that this is an industry among industries under capitalism. And, in fact, as the black feminists in the 1980s were saying when the industry started coming along, “nothing new.” Something that, in fact, we are already familiar with without really realizing it. So, what I mean by that is that while on its face commercial gestational surrogacy elicits this reaction of, “That is wrong.” That there’s something deeply wrong about exploiting gestational labor power in the service of economically more powerful biogenetic families. But, as people like Angela Davis were saying, and the legal scholar Anita Allen who wrote an essay called “The Black Surrogate Mother” in the 1980s, that the basics of this relation, as a labor relation, have been foundational certainly to the reproduction of the American private nuclear household for an extremely long time. So while the commercialization and literalization of relationships of surrogacy is a new thing, it’s perhaps better to understand it as a chance for us to become more aware, because of something becoming more obvious, about the foundational constitution of the so-called “natural family.” Kathi Weeks has this line about how the essence of surrogacy is about having figures, shadowy figures, excised from the family photo. And what the black feminist Marxist intervention seems to me to have been in the ’80s was that well, we’re calling this situation that people are making a lot of noise about and feeling a lot of revulsion about “new,” as in new reproductive technologies. But in fact there is nothing new at all about a relationship in which proletarian, often racialized, feminized, laborers are bringing their bodies and labors into the service of a white household. Not always white, but certainly the image under which the bourgeois family has been generalized and often internalized by many other classes is a white image, which relies on a series of “help” meets wet nurses and so on and so forth, who are shadowy figures on the side.
DD: In other words, you argue something is definitely wrong with the commercial surrogacy industry, but it’s just not at all what surrogacy prohibitionists say is wrong with it. You ask, “Is gestational surrogacy intrinsically the apogee of alienation, a violation that can only ever be arranged in different feudal neoliberal settler colonial flavors?” And your answer of course is a strong “No.” You write that this total dystopian vision requires both an obscene celebration of more conventional forms of wage labor under capitalism, at least implicitly, at least by implication, and also the erasure of surrogate workers. My question is: Who are surrogate workers and how do you, as a Marxist feminist, think about their work and the work of anyone gestating a fetus?
SL: People who sign up to be commercial gestational surrogates today might be quite different things. This is also something that is true of other industries, including, for example, sex work. You might have a fairly boutique, if you like, commercial gestational surrogate based in California. She might be someone—this is something that academic papers have identified as a trend—a military wife with great health insurance via the military, who is making use of the absence of said husband on some kind of military deployment and taking advantage of this great obstetric care provision to gestate babies that are the genetic property, in this logic, of a given set of buyers. Or, in some cases, it might be altruistic of course. I confine myself to mainly looking at the commercial side of this new configuration. But sometimes, particularly among the affluent, so-called altruistic (i.e. unpaid) commercial surrogacy arrangements do occur. Or, and this is the majority case, you might be a low income, but not, as a rule, among the lowest income Indian worker. You might be a person in Gujarat, in India, who is otherwise typically employed in garment manufacture or glass crushing, those being the opposite ends of the spectrum of employment generally reported by employees at a given clinic that I use as my case study in the book. You know, you have aspirations. The typical one named is about having a house of your own to raise your own children in. The image of the private property horizon for gestational surrogates in India seems extremely ideological, even pivotal, for the people justifying the outsourcing model of this of this industry. By outsourcing I mean the component whereby people from the Global North travel to the Global South to avail themselves of gestational services that are cheaper there than they would be at home. That’s not the only component of Indian clinics. Indian clinics serve Indian commissioning parents, but the media tends to focus on the sensational visuals of what some scholars have called “cross-racial transnational reproductive tourism.” Where you get one of these gestational employees having a C-section where her boss is lifting a racially “other” baby out of her body. That tends to be the image that gestational surrogacy travels under. You know, with its shock value. So those are the two typical images of a gestational surrogate. A Californian who is being paid perhaps $33,000. I mean, the hubs of the industry are constantly changing. And India has in fact banned, which I found very rude just as my book was going to press, the commercial and homosexual elements of the industry. So currently things in India are up in the air and it’s no longer really…I mean I foresee this changing again, but right now there are actually no––
DD: So how do you, as a Marxist feminist, think about this work and the work of anyone gestating a fetus?
SL: Well, someone gestating a fetus under capitalism, whether they’re doing it for money or not, are creating value for capitalism. Mariarosa Dalla Costa, one of the thinkers associated with the Wages for Housework platform that I draw a lot of my inspiration from in Full Surrogacy Now, talks about the capitalist function of the uterus. Which is the function whereby the injunction to produce babies who will become workers is something that robs gestators, which is my term (some people don’t like it) for people who could potentially gestate. One might also say women in that context. I prefer to be more specific. But, yeah, it robs us of our creative capacities and our sex life. So I think gestating is a form of work. This is part of Wages for Housework’s original statement. They said every miscarriage is a workplace accident, which means that pregnancy is work not just in a metaphorical wishy-washy sense, which is what people tend to like to say. “Pregnancy is hard work” is something that people say a lot even as they really ridicule the idea that it is literally an expenditure of labor power involving a unity of design and execution and so on.
DD: Because it’s a labor of love.
SL: Yes. Right. Exactly. But I’m serious about it, even as other Wages for Housework thinkers have backed away from this particular component of their original intervention. And I think that what commercial surrogates are doing is very much the same thing that unpaid “natural or normal” gestational workers are doing, except it has been appropriated into a capitalist relation of extraction, circulation, accumulation.
DD: You write that human life is perhaps “the ultimate commodity fetish.” And you’re citing, I think, anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes there. My question is: First, how does the mystification of the production of life, by way of gestation, fit into a broader Marxist analysis of the mystification of labor in the creation of value more generally? And second, and this is following up on your last comment around Wages for Housework, how have Marxists and Marxist feminists conventionally understood pregnancy and childbirth? And where do you fit into and depart from that history?
SL: I love the way you put that. I think linking the mystification around this construct, “life itself,” with mystification around labor is actually what I’m doing in the book to some extent. I appreciate you showing me that. It’s become particularly apparent to me that this is a book that is touching on a certain sore spot right now for elements of a natalist, far-right, Evangelical, self-designated pro-life, in my view fetus fetishist, movement.
DD: I’ve heard your Twitter mentions have gotten interesting recently.
SL: Oh boy. Yes. Well, we can talk about that if you like.
DD: No, no, no. No need. Go ahead.
SL: I would say that what is invisiblized in the doctrine of life itself is of course the ways in which, and this is where my critical Harawavianism comes in…The ways in which we are implicated in unmaking specific forms of life always, at the same time as we are constructing them and building them, we can’t get away from a certain degree of violence in a sense. There is a responsibility we owe to ourselves and to each other around deciding not to reproduce certain things. And it’s a dimension of labor, including care labor, because I believe that care is creative and makes things. It makes certain worlds. It makes certain futures. It also chooses not to make other things. It chooses to unmake, therefore, other kinds of human being, other forms of sociality. There isn’t a way to be simply pro-life in a politically liberatory way. I am for abortion because I think it’s a good thing. It’s good for people. And also because I support the right to stop doing gestational work, whatever the reason. I see no humane way to advocate for forcing people into a forced labor relation. I think people for whatever reason have a complete right, if you want to frame it in terms of right, to kill the part of themselves that is the fetus in a pregnancy. And what seems to be challenging to my army of trolls at the moment, sent by Tucker Carlson, is that you can think that a fetus and an abortion are questions of health care and of killing at the same time. In Full Surrogacy Now, I zero in on an incredibly overlooked figure called Mary O’Brien, who was one of the only people to really make a forceful case for pregnancy being something that really builds history. And she was a sort of Marxist Hegelian. She was also a Scottish midwife, working-class person, really fascinating figure. And she really could write. I am deeply indebted to Mary O’Brien and her The Politics of Reproduction, which synthesizes a lot of the feminist literature for me, luckily, and takes it to task wherever it doesn’t actually acknowledge the historical, historically contingent, material character of pregnancy sufficiently. So she looks at people like de Beauvoir and Kate Millett and corrects them in a certain sense. Ultimately, I reject Mary O’Brien for having deep blind spots around queerness, around traditions of polymaternalism, around the family, which I do not see as a good thing, around transness, although I recognize that it was very much de rigueur to be transexclusionary among some parts of academia in the 1980s. So my reading of the Marxist approach to gestating takes a very brilliant Marxist feminist, Mary O’Brien, as its guide. She has a lot of zingers to do with the magical ways in which Marxists think children seem to appear spontaneously. The classic view is that literally reproductive––although I prefer to use words like procreative to be clear, for reasons I can––labor “does not produce value, does not produce needs, and therefore does not make history nor make men.” That was her summation of how Marxists see pregnancy. And as a general rule Marxists have also looked at surrogacy and seen it as the epitome of forced alienated labor. And this is because in the phrase of one of these figures, Marvin Glass, “the contracted gestators activity is not spontaneous activity. It belongs to another. It is the loss of self.” So this is something that is particularly, apparently, the case in surrogacy, although it’s clearly also the case in a lot of other kinds of capitalist work. I spend a lot of time considering this as gently as I can and trying to tease out why there is this deep gestational exceptionalism among Marxists when thinking about work and anti-work. And I basically conclude that because we have an actual shop floor here historically, peopled by waged gestational workers who have a politics of their own, have a series of demands, have analysis of what they are doing, it makes absolutely no sense to continue with this kind of moral theorizing, over gestational surrogates’ heads, of this Marxist type, which is basically inconsistent and often amounts to an anti-commodification position that wants to abolish the workplace without abolishing the work.
DD: Let’s pause right there because I think we should explain, before we get any further, the distinction you’re making between work and labor. Lay out that distinction and what labor, including gestation and going into labor, might look like if it wasn’t work because we lived in an emancipated society. Because you argue for a struggle against, and for the abolition of, work and value. But obviously humans will always have to toil, even under a much better system. So explain the distinction you’re making.
SL: Oh, it’s quite simple. My sense is that labor is a good word for the activities we perform that interact with non-human elements of nature. We will be stuck with that no matter what. Work is a useful term I find for the stealing of those processes in capitalist relations. I’m thinking of this line by Silvia Federici, which is that nothing so successfully stifles our lives as the transformation into work of those activities and relations that most satisfy our desires. So the transformation into work of labors that we could be otherwise doing out of a kind of desire. Even potentially toilet cleaning might be something that we could have a desire to do were we not compelled to do it for alienating reasons, under a world governed by profit and value. When I say work I’m talking about something that I want to, as you say, abolish. But that doesn’t mean that I think it will vanish. I don’t think we will be left, even in an utopian situation, with no work, unfortunately. I think we will be left with some sort of unpleasant kind of––
DD: Some drudgery.
SL: Yeah. The thing about gestational work which is deeply alienated in a world where, and this is the Dalla Costa point, the product you’re creating is going to be immediately stolen by the capitalist class and by capital itself. This would be deeply different––Mary O’Brien has a very cryptic but very suggestive line, which is that in a society liberated from capitalism and patriarchy “children will be different.” My sense is that would be the case, partly because children’s liberation will have returned to the sensibilities of progressives and revolutionaries. This thing that has kind of been lost sight of but used to be theorized by people like Shulasmith Firestone, who saw the private nuclear household as somewhere where women and children are produced as workers and who can only really get their freedom together by abolishing themselves as such. Gestational labor is scary, as well as other things. This is also something I think I’ve been liable to be misunderstood about. I open my book and continue towards the end of it with a description of the technicalities and mechanics of hemochorial placentation, which is the biological term for the setup we have as mammal homo sapiens. A deeply unfortunate placenta.
DD: I would say you open your book on a––there is a kind of interesting structure to the tone of your book, where you open on what feels like a strategically anti-natalist, anti-childbirth note. You talk about pregnancy’s little discussed morbidity, how “bio-physically speaking gestating is an unconscionably destructive business.” You even suggest that pregnancy is a cancer of sorts. But then, you end the book by arguing that gestation and childbirth already contain within them a queer communist horizon because they break down this notion of unitary human individuals. And you point to surrogacy and how it demonstrates that the uterus is nobly indifferent to the DNA of the fetus it gestates. I take it the structure wasn’t an accident.
SL: Well, yeah. Even in the beginning I think, I hope I convey a certain kind of ambivalence about extreme sports like gestating. I think in a liberated society of course some people would still want to do things that are internally ravaging and dangerous. I mean, look, I’m kind of a pervert. I hope other people are too. There’s something deeply exciting and sublime and strange about being invaded from the inside, like by something that you can’t really simply choose to let go of. Unlike in other species where, as I detail, pregnancies tend to be something that can actually be dropped without undue damage. There’s not so high a risk of hemorrhage and so on in other species, which is one of the reasons why it is in our species that the whole question of reproductive rights and justice is so fraught. There is a sort of makeup we have unfortunately (that I believe we could dedicate intensive gestator-led scientific inquiry into attenuating with technology, medicine, all kinds of things) whereby the last thing that will stay alive if a pregnant person runs into some kind of life-threatening difficulty is likely to be the pregnancy. We are rigged in such a way that mama doesn’t come first. I wonder if we could bio-hack that. Unfortunately, the people right now who are leading the charge in pursuing partial automation in pregnancy are not doing so out of a desire to attenuate the burdens of gestational work or multiply the options for people who might want to get together and manufacture a fetus. They are doing so because of their obsessive concern for the fetus, their desire to construct the human fetus as a medical patient, their basic objective being to remove the gestator and their or her inconvenient power. And, as I say, it’s an already really constricted and constrained power, unfortunately, to say no to the fetus, to kill, or to remove that part of her body from herself. And so the goal currently for those who are trying to alleviate and experimentally automate the uterus, which is happening in Philadelphia, by the way. Their objective is not the queer gestational commune. We’re gonna have to really move fast in taking this over from below. Because their goal is actually to “solve the problem of abortion” by making it “unnecessary.” Because a “preemie,” a premature neonate, could, in their scenario, should it prove successful (and there is already FDA approval for many of these sort of bio-bag type prototypes), it would be potentially illegal.
DD: In terms of what you’re just talking out though, one thing that’s striking about commercial surrogacy in India is all of the state-of-the-art health care being provided to surrogate workers who would otherwise be denied quality health care. Which is pretty chilling for a lot of reasons, including extremely high maternal mortality. You write, then, that the problem isn’t the technologization of pregnancy, but instead the social reality within which pregnancy’s technologization already exists, including, but beyond, commercial surrogacy. And the way that technology exists, of course, is within highly unequal capitalist social relations. Explain your take on technology and pregnancy and what sort of broader theory of technology you subscribe to.
SL: My perspective on technology in pregnancy is influenced by the xenofeminists, by Donna Haraway, and by certain kinds of black feminist, especially queer black feminists, those inclined towards Afrofuturism and a rejection of the shibboleths of nature as tacitly colonial and/ or settler colonial constructs. My provocative proposal is that all reproduction is assisted. If you think about the implication of the phrase “assisted reproduction,” it’s that some reproduction is unassisted. Whereas people across the political spectrum think they agree with the proposition “it takes a village,” and I extend the notion that it takes a village all the way into the pre-birth term. I think about pregnancy as something that involves a plurality of technics, of actors, of relations, of provisioning, and so on and so forth. So when I think about the so-called “natural birth” or “natural childbirth” movement, which is an ideological and activist formation that has its roots in the post-war period. And was oddly kind of paternalistically led by people including Grantley Dick-Read, a man who went to Africa to discover and report back to the West how black women there experienced no pain and no fear in connection with childbirth and then applied these principles to various schools of childbirth in England and Western Europe and North America. This was obviously one of competing tendencies in this direction, including Lamar’s, which I’m not necessarily trying to reject wholesale. But natural childbirth is a deeply unnatural thing. It has a whole host of approaches and artificial mechanisms within it that you can style your pregnancy according to. And you’re asking about the kind of heuristics I use to think about nature and technology. And, well, I’m trained as a critical geographer, and it’s in geography that Marxists and Eco-Marxists and queer feminists have been denaturalizing the operations of nature for some decades. So when it comes to natural birth, while I’m with Shulasmith Firestone on a whole host of things notwithstanding her blindness to questions of white supremacy, which is very serious, she really hasn’t got it right when she, albeit hilariously, mounts her invective against natural childbirth, and talks about childbirth as something akin to shitting a pumpkin, as the famous phrase has it. She has a wonderful dialogue between herself and the school of the great experience, as she calls it. And she’s completely right about a lot of this. There is a sort of repronormative coercion involved in ideologically placing pregnancy among a series of untouchably sublime experiences. The very true reality that many people experience something sublime when they gestate is then turned into a sort of injunction. I’m not interested in saying that pregnancy is one thing or another. Clearly people have completely different experiences of it. The idea that we shouldn’t have any choice about entering into a situation that is so risky and––
DD: Also that there’s this sense that it’s compulsory that you report joy about pregnancy and having children. Which then makes postpartum depression, which is far more common than post-abortion depression, all the more tricky of a condition to deal with because it’s so highly stigmatized.
SL: Precisely. Yes. The construct “natural childbirth,” in practice, is not something I have all that much to quarrel with. There’s a fantastic long-standing grassroots movement of doulas and midwives, and people who are historically the heirs of the witches and Indigenous healers, or multiple reproductive technicians in communities who were expelled from the gestational workplace with the rise of patriarchal and protocapitalist obstetrics. This is a well-known history we find in histories like Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. And of course there are things that involve a certain kind of mystification practiced in some of these movements, but as a rule there are many sorts of queer, cyborg, trans-inclusive practices to be found in the doula-ing movement and they are just quietly getting on with a trans-inclusive approach to reproductive justice. Which is far in advance of the mainstream media’s sense of what is possible within medical practice, particularly in the UK, where I come from. You will find these articles about about how we will be banned from saying breastfeeding and pregnant women et cetera et cetera. In reality you can write books like mine, which uncouple gestating from gender to a large degree. You can quietly just get on as many people have with caring for gestators of more than one gender and the fabric of the universe doesn’t implode. But I will say that my problem with the term “natural,” when it comes to vindicating birthers and gestators, is just that it throws tacitly “unnatural” figures amongst us potentially under the bus. Not necessarily in practice, as I say, but I take from Haraway the notion that technology has been co-constitutive of the human right from the beginning. The notion of the cyborg is the notion that we began to have technics involved in our very flesh as soon as we started cooking food. The idea of an unnatural pregnancy implied by the ideal natural pregnancy is one that presumably involves untoward quantities of assistance or medical intervention and so on. And what people are really, I think, when they’re objecting to something real, rather than just something phobically constructed as weak or uncourageous or something…What they’re reacting to, when it is valid, is simply the wrong kind of alienation. It’s the power relations in the maternity ward, and that’s why I’m not interested in natural versus unnatural. I’m interested in who has the power. So in the context of the so-called womb farm it’s about who’s running the farm. The phrase doesn’t tell me so much in the way that the kind of sensationalist moral critics, who call everything “The Handmaid’s Tale” or whatever, think it tells us. I want to know more about the class relations in play.
DD: Let’s discuss the concrete world of commercial surrogacy a little more directly, particularly the situation in India, which is a focus of your book and was, at least until perhaps very recently, a center of the global surrogacy economy. What is or was the situation in India? And who is Nayna Patel? Who you mentioned earlier, I believe. This TED-talking Oprah-approved surrogacy clinic owner. Really the apogee, perhaps, of the whole industry. And how does Patel represent her enterprise so as to simultaneously celebrate it as an anti-poverty initiative and as a labor of love?
SL: Dr. Nayna Patel is this kind of girlboss who really carved out the discursive space for commercial gestational surrogacy on a world stage. She was one of the first really successful bioclinical capitalists to innovate in this area. But not only that, she was one of the firsts to really take it on to myriad documentaries and talk shows and, as you mentioned, this included Oprah, who was initially skeptical about the exploitation involved but who was entirely sold by Patel’s considerable charisma and ended up pronouncing Patel’s business “women helping women.” I love it. And the reason for picking this clinic as a case study, which is something I’m not alone in doing by any means; I should be clear I did not do ethnography or field research myself. There is an absolute plethora of ethnographies out there. I was really struck by the number of anthropological, sociological, workplace inquiries (although they weren’t called that; that was my spin on it) that have been conducted. Where academics have gone, ideally with some of the local language under their belt, to report back on this extraordinary new “Brave New World” type situation. And as the very well-known philosopher of reproduction Marilyn Strathern put it wryly, there will be no shortage of good copy when it comes to surrogacy. People love to talk about it. They love to do documentaries on it. They love to talk to Nayna Patel in a very superficial way honestly. And respectfully, with some very important exceptions, the academia too is very shallow. It accepts all these premises that people like Patel are saying about the industry. That it’s completely separate from everyday life. That this is something kind of magical, kind of technical, that people like her, in her white coat, can arrange for you to mitigate the extraordinary hardship that is infertility. So Nayna Patel, I don’t know if she has any interest in reading my book. I hope that she doesn’t misunderstand it as some people may, as a pro-surrogacy polemic. It’s true that if you don’t think about the title Full Surrogacy Now at all and ask yourself what “full surrogacy” might mean, it’s an impossible concept. I am interested in something that might be worthy of the name, but we can go into that later. She might potentially think that I’m singing her praises. Of course I actually think she’s––
DD: Not if her reading comprehension is what I…It’s very high level.
SL: If you’re listening Nayna, with all due respect, you’re a class enemy and your vision of yourself is megalomaniacal. Maybe I should cut that last bit if it’s libelous. But Nayna Patel has a discourse about what she is doing that literally trades in this vitalist language of life in particular and life itself. She thinks that it is in her hands. A class-flattened exchange of deep fundamental needs belonging to individual women is being trafficked and resolved to everybody’s benefit. So on the one hand you have the tragically childless woman. She may come from the Global North or she may not. And on the other you have this low-income help…A local who is deeply, in this narrative, invested in anti-infertility as a social cause. So the commissioning parents in industrial surrogacy become positioned as a kind of oppressed class, almost akin to exclusions along the lines of race or class or disability or something. And Patel is catering to them because there is nothing more sacred, in her world view, than the desire for a “child of one’s own.” And her hospital is massive. As you say, commercial surrogacy is currently illegal in India. I have to say I foresee that changing swiftly again. Regardless, her profits off the back of her gestational employees have been so significant that she’s been able to complete the construction of a “one stop shop” for all things surrogacy, which is this glittering hospital, the Akanksha. Where on the top floor there is a laboratory in which completely different directions are going to be pursued perhaps in the interim, while surrogacy per se is off the cards. There is so much demand for certain kinds of niche medical banking. You can bank your cord blood. The umbilical cord cells that, according to some new veins of privatized medicine, have special properties for ensuring a specific individual’s health later on in life and so on and so forth. There are these offcuts of pregnancy that Patel can make good capitalist use of in the laboratory and her hospital even as the commercial surrogacy itself is on pause. And what I found so interesting about her place in the surrogacy pantheon is her ability to spin what she’s doing as feminism, very much along the lines of Sheryl Sandberg’s account of what being a feminist means.
DD: I want to ask about that in particular. You write that she frames her clinic as doing the same sort of development work that microlending does. It is, in this framing, development as the empowerment of individual women as entrepreneurs of sorts to liberate women from both poverty and patriarchy. Explain how this ideology and rhetoric functions within the Indian and global political economy. Specifically this demonization of working class husbands, sold as a liberation of working class women. Because Patel figures the husband as the oppressor and not herself. And it is Patel, after all, who is the boss.
SL: A huge part of the reason why Patel is so eminently televisable and quotable in the West, in the anglophone sphere, including the Indian anglosphere, is because of her snappy, catty, pop feminism. Well, it’s several things at once really. I read it as a form of lean in feminism at the same time as it draws really heavily on traditions of Lady Bountiful-type parochial, noblesse oblige sorts of activities in the colonial Indian context. There are these interviews where she talks about how right from childhood she was deeply passionate about going to “trim the nails and wash the hair” of the local Adivasi populations because of her good breeding and her aristocratic extraction. But it’s something that really operates as a kind of parallel to projects of neoliberal subjectification such as microfinance. The idea being, and this is very much promulgated by organizations like the World Bank and the U.N. and so on, if you empower third world women you are making sound economic investments. This is a plinth of philanthro-capitalism as well. That if you only target the oppressed women of the Global South they will, under your benevolent, humanitarian, feminist gaze, become little entrepreneurs. All they need is a tiny bit of startup capital, and before you know it they’ll be running little chocolate businesses or embroidery shops or whatever. And so there’s this incredible irony here. Patel doesn’t quite have the guts to go the whole distance and frame the actual gestating that her employees are doing as the substantive work in this initiative that she is curating. She starts off by saying that. She has frequently said that being a gestational surrogate is “better work than being a construction worker, a laborer, or a maid.” That’s a quote. But then, as she gets herself mired in the logical implications of this assertion of gestating as a “physical job” (that’s another thing she has said), soon enough she realizes that she’s going to have to talk out of the other side of her mouth and talk about the other things that she puts into her employees hands as the actual work. So while they are in her dormitory, she makes sure that they learn English, or learn how to style hair, or do makeup, or make chocolate, or so on and so forth. And that becomes, what she then slides into saying is the actual job training.
DD: Instead of capitalist labor relations, what she wants to present going on is the Indian surrogate worker women not being workers, but doing this beautifully empathetic selfless service for infertile women elsewhere. And then she’s doing this selfless thing by giving them this job training. So it’s actually just this decommodified care economy…Is the way she likes to present it when that suits her.
SL: Absolutely. Which really exposes some of the tensions in the whole girlboss construction. You can be a ruthless business innovator, but doing so literally with uteruses is still something a little bit too much for a global public to swallow. And it’s not what she wants to swallow either. It’s not completely what she wants to see herself as either.
DD: And the demonization of working-class husbands?
SL: Yes, of course. Good point. This is another reason why people lap it up. Clients at Dr. Patel’s clinic hear her, in the sound bites broadcast on radio and television, saying in these dramatic speeches she likes to give in her beautiful saris and jewelry to assemblies of her employees, along the lines of “a husband is always a problem.” And everyone gets to giggle. And there are even theater outings that she’s organized for her best employees where they got to see a play which is about a feisty surrogate who is pursuing surrogacy against her husband’s wishes and so on. And Patel gets to absorb the benefits of this illusion of transgression and so on. She is enabling these girls to stick the middle finger up at their husbands in the ways they always wanted to. As though working-class women couldn’t and haven’t always been doing that themselves. And as though saying fuck you to your husbands simply to embrace––
DD: As though they need a rich lady to teach them how to do that.
SL: Your boss. Exactly. It’s also deeply ironic in that Patel requires permission from husbands. She doesn’t actually, in any material way, modify the norms of the industry which rely on an infantilization of the gestational surrogate via consent and approval required from husbands and fathers. But via these small moments, these cosmetic elements of demonization of working-class men, she gets to enroll a whole plethora of pseudo-feminist buy-in, both internationally and locally. And it bears no connection whatsoever with her analysis of more affluent men, commissioning fathers, her own husband for example. There is absolutely no sense that the couple form, when it is middle to upper class and coming along to collect a baby from the clinic as its property, that there is any kind of problem with heterosexual marriage or the nuclear household then.
DD: Let’s talk about that point a little more. This important thing that you point to is that Patel’s entire enterprise, and in fact the entire enterprise of commercial surrogacy in many ways, at least in this transnational context, is premised upon the endorsement of this powerful and deeply rooted morality tale that naturalizes bourgeois families that want a child, and that intervenes in and stigmatizes the very sort of poor families that commercial surrogate workers come from. And you write that this organizing principle of capitalist political economy is the white middle-class nuclear family. And that, in turn, anchors this quasi-eugenically racialized order that devalues, stigmatizes, polices, separates, and degrades most every other sort of family. Explain the role of the white middle-class family both literally and as an icon, and how that depends upon other mothers being poor. That the ideal of this family can only appear as though it’s built upon noncommercial and noncommodified relationships because it depends on the outsourcing of so much family labor. Sorry that’s a mouthful.
SL: Broadly speaking, just to lay it out, I and many others––because this analysis used to be a bit of a mainstay of several strands of women’s liberation thinking, radical feminism, gay liberation, and utopian socialism––believe the family is extremely worthy of abolition. Abolish the family used to be an extremely well-known demand. Why? Because, and I actually don’t go into Engels so much as I go into the black feminist critique, but the analyses dovetail regardless of which wing of the liberation struggle coalition you look at. The nuclear private household, also known as the family, is the site of the overwhelming majority of the sexualized abuse that goes on on planet Earth. It is not the haven for many people that it is set up to be by the family values shibboleths. It is also a really crucial building block for capitalism and that includes neoliberal and neoconservative brands of capitalism. As Melinda Cooper lays out in her book, the answer to the thesis which we find frequently on the left that capitalism has already abolished the family or whatever is no, not at all. The unit of order for contemporary capitalist regimes, just as it was for earlier ones, is the family in perpetual crisis. It is in fact the idea that the family is falling apart that gives a lot of energy and fuel to policies that inject or purport to inject new life into that unit, always at the expense of others, be it queers, refugees from the family as it were. And don’t forget, queer youth are frequently literal lethal victims of the so-called family and their individual families, which requires a whole host of reparative and humanitarian organizations, many of them just voluntary. Many of them just activist forms of social reproduction and rescue for queer youth. But also migrants, people dispossessed for any kind of reason, and particularly racial reasons, from the dividends that accrue to the standard normative family. The system that naturalizes this image of the family in the Global North. By naturalizes I mean constructs it as something we think of as naturally occurring, even self-sustaining. It’s a whole project that invisibilizes and mystifies the way in which all kinds of others are actually being dispossessed of that family form in order to maintain it. And this is something that you see when you pick apart the transaction at the heart of Nayna Patel’s business. There are other people who have to do deeply unfamilial things under the aegis of a desire to be part of that normative family ideal, in order to materially provide for the needs of families in the Global North. Particularly white ones. That basic global care chain is something that Kalindi Vora takes on in her book Life Support, and she has a new one out co-written with Neda Atanasoski, called Surrogate Humanity. That’s a very deeply ingrained operation of contemporary biocapital. It’s this way in which everyone is encouraged ghoulishly to buy into a fundamentally stratifying and chasmic universalist bargain around the ideal of the universal family that everyone can have. In fact, no. It’s literally impossible for everyone to have that. Because on a colonial and class basis, a great deal of us are laboring impossibly to achieve something that we will never get out of, our efforts to provide for people the private nuclear households of the ruling class.
DD: You argue that commercial surrogacy is premised on the impossible task of having a baby for someone else. An extreme manifestation, you argue, of the standard fiction that babies belong to anyone at all. And you write that this is a fiction not only socially but also biologically. And then more specifically you write that the commercial surrogacy industry is premised on brown women being able to make white babies, and in the fiction that those white babies will not be tainted by a racial, class, or national other. The contamination of that other. Explain these fictions you’re writing against and also your argument about babies in truth belonging to no one at all.
SL: One of the ironies to dispel right off the bat about so-called surrogacy, this so-called “new,” in actuality not new at all reproductive technology, which is actually just human labor––it’s actually just pregnancy––is that it is something that disturbs, transgresses, or if you’re really techno-utopian and uncritical of capitalism, then queers the family or something. Some of my critics, who don’t read me, I think take it that I somehow think that actually existing surrogacy queers the biogenetic standard of the natural family. And this is not just not what I say. It would be absurd to say that. Because commercial surrogacy as an industry is where you find the most virulent assertions of the idea that a baby is the property of its genetic commissioners. It’s the opposite of an anti-familial zone in that sense. It’s where the most––
DD: The ultimate of the ultimate commodity fetish.
SL: Exactly. So it’s useful to look to that sphere, because what is happening there is in any way transgressive in and of itself, yet quite the contrary. But because some of those assertions about reproduction taking place, they are by virtue of their virulence potentially open for unsettling. So what surrogacy can tell us about pregnancy and reproduction is open for contestation I think. As you say, there is something provocative about the spectacle of a white baby coming out of a brown body. Nayana Patel is prone to making ontological statements about the guaranteed and stable character of race as a biological immutability. In these moments she has said things like “pure white. Pure European. You can always tell.” And it’s really fascinating to try and unpack what she means there by “you can always tell.” This is a body that a second ago was part of another body. Where did that body come from? In what way is it in fact distinct from the gestator? And it is extremely striking to witness the choreographies in play in that medical context because Patel will lift the baby out and then say, “bring the baby to its mother.” The mother is not the person lying there. It’s the person waiting outside in the waiting room. And those constructions are crucial for the profit-making that Patel is wedded to.
DD: And part of this is emphasizing DNA in a way that crowds out other biological materials that are in fact, biologically speaking, constitutive of who a human is or what a human is.
SL: Exactly. There is a robust tradition of Marxist and socialist biologists, and also of feminist socialist ones, not to mention anti-colonial readings of science and particularly of genetics, that tells us that DNA is not self-reproducing. It doesn’t make things. And it is vastly overestimated and vastly overinvested in as a promise of the coded algorithmic replication of self amongst humans. In my book I have a moment where I share a personal memory that, in my view, constitutes the origin of my interest in the blackmail that is the notion of genetic predetermination, inheritance, and progeny. It’s a memory of sitting in the back seat of the car with my nuclear family, my father and my mother in the front. We had just seen a play and I asked precociously from the back seat, musing about the themes of that play, how it made any sense. Because obviously, Dad, if you were to suddenly find out that my brother and I were technically genetically the children of the milkman you wouldn’t suddenly love us any less would you?
DD: I was going to say pool boy, but milkman, yeah.
SL: You wouldn’t suddenly love us any less, Dad? was a rhetorical question, but unfortunately I got this real answer in the form of a really sickening silence that struck me dumb. I couldn’t speak for the rest of that car ride and I think it’s been the origin of my curiosity about the violence and the scarcity and, as I say, blackmail implicit in the notion that the given relations of blood are those that will matter most to you, the only ones that will be there for you, and the ones to which you will be beholden.
DD: One related key contradiction in the way that commercial surrogacy fits within this racialized global reproductive order is how it transforms Indian women’s fertility from a problem for the world, into a solution for affluent white women’s infertility. What’s your analysis of the significance of it being Indian women, who for so long have been a central focus of eugenic populationist anxiety and intervention. That they now find themselves at the center of commercial surrogacy, making so-called white babies. It’s pretty weird.
SL: Yeah, absolutely. Of course, there are other hubs of the industry including Kenya, Guatemala, Laos, and until recently, Thailand. But as you say it is non-innocent, in my view, that it is in India that this source of productive or so-called reproductive labor power has been harnessed to such incredibly profitable ends. I would defer partly to the wonderful scholar Sharmila Rudrappa, whose book Discounted Life is partly about this deep irony that those same populations targeted by sterilization under Indira Gandhi are now the ones that are enrolled in the assistance of others’ reproduction. It’s non-innocent because, in a sense, this is where the capitalist market has the greatest surplus to reap. Very few Indian women in the aggregate access healthcare workers in their lifetime. There is a deeply devalued quantum of the gestational labor power in play. And what happens when capitalists move in, in this population, is they can take what has been cheapened to a deeper degree than any other gestational labor power on earth almost. And it can enroll that in a matrix of high-end, world-class obstetric care, which has the side effect of really pulling the wool over the workers eyes in that they become bought in in some cases, at least initially, to the idea that surrogacy and normal pregnancy are completely different things. Because how could it not be. Because look at all the injections, look at all the applications of vitamins, look at all the scans, look at…There is nothing similar about a gestational surrogate in India’s typical experience of a surrogate pregnancy and her non-surrogate prior pregnancy that generated her daughters and/ or sons. Which is why it takes more than one cycle of surrogate pregnancy for many of these workers to actually realize that this is very much pregnancy. A body treats an embryo containing genetic material of the gestator and somebody else much the same as it does an embryo containing a stranger’s genetic material. Genetics just isn’t really that big of a deal for a human body. We are also epigenetically shaped. Donna Haraway provocatively says that reproduction doesn’t really occur in species that carry out sexual reproduction. DNA gets scrambled more than it does get passed on. And so for people like my dad, incredibly invested in the idea that they are making copies of themselves, we’ve got bad news for you from socialist feminist biology. This is very much a myth. And, of course, you can take this further. You can look at the ways in which we are porous and leaky and very much filled with organisms that are crucial to sustaining us. We are in a sense being gestated by microorganisms, which is a subject taken up by artists including Patricia Piccinni, who likes to show the invisible alien surrogates who are always already up in your business, spooning your children and mothering them alongside you. Because the fictions of bounded, clean, uncontaminated biogenetic procreation are just that. They are really fictions. And the surrogacy industry is all about the extraordinarily audacious rhetorical move of literally lifting out the flesh and blood and viscera from the abdomen of a worker and telling you that nothing about that worker remains. That no trace of her is going to stick to the baby that you carry away.
DD: As if there could be something less antiseptic than gestation and birth.
DD: I want to talk more about the current of feminists who support criminalizing commercial surrogacy. It emanates, generally speaking, from this certain current that also opposes trans women and sex work, called so-called “radical feminism.” Explain what so-called “radical feminism” is, its origins and trajectory, and its fierce commitment to defending womanhood as what you call a sex class.
SL: It’s a shifting field. Radfem, as it is sometimes still called, despite not being radical.
DD: That’s sort of unfortunate. The name.
SL: It can also be designated as “cultural feminism,” Although that doesn’t really immediately tell you so much. It’s the phrase of Alice Echols, a historian of Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, and it’s a very instructive history because she posits that this particular formation that we are now seeing, all these years on, still dominating a lot of spaces hegemonically, particularly in the UK. It’s the phobic traumatized, in a certain sense, residual of the collapse of the second wave that has become the only thing that people think of when they hear the term radical feminism. So it’s actually the case that some women’s liberation factions were virulently opposed to this strand of thinking at the time in the late ’60s early ’70s. There were trans-inclusive second-wave feminisms for example. But what Alice Echols calls “cultural feminism” or what can also be called ontologically-oriented feminism, oriented ontologically towards the idea of the female as a biological and trans-historical constant, subject in an almost metaphysical sense to something they call “female erasure.” It’s something that was a minority but had the good fortune of not collapsing to the same extent that other parts of the second-wave moment did. And that’s got to write history a little bit on behalf of those other feminisms and––
DD: Is that because it was more conducive to neoliberalism? Or more copacetic with it?
SL: Absolutely, yeah. Despite thinking of itself as radical, this particular strand of feminism works incredibly well together with various forms of neoliberal and/ or neoconservative reaction.
DD: Because it just so happens to frequently share priorities with the religious right as well.
SL: That’s right, yeah. In the mid ’80s people were already saying that the abolitionist anti-surrogacy project was “in bed with church men.” And that the victories that a certain kind of radfem, ecofem opposition to reproductive engineering and reproductive technology shouldn’t necessarily be chalked up to its feminism, but rather to the fact that it was saying the same thing as the Catholic Church. And the ties between right-wing and sometimes even far-right entities, and actors, and sources of funding, and this particular front of feminist struggle––these were laid down in the ’80s by cultural feminism and then continue, or have had a resurgence, in the 21st century in the form of collaborations between trans-exclusionary British feminists and the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. Or pro-life interests such as the Center for Bioethics and Culture in the US and the European activists who are trying to criminalize surrogacy in The Hague or at the level of the UN. So we’re having a second round of radfem pro-life alliance. And that’s not to say that everyone involved in opposing surrogacy for feminist reasons in the ’80s was doing so for these kinds of reasons. There were actually dissenting voices within many of the networks. I don’t want to ignore those. But a lot of the key players were leading the charge against surrogacy as a form of commodification, and even as they had no problem saying “slavery.” They are the same exact people who have authored the most brutally transphobic parts of feminist philosophy. And they have spearheaded the rescue industry, with its deeply damaging to sex workers anti-prostitution policies. So the exclusionary radical feminist international, the TERFs, the SWERFs, are joined by what I propose is a SERF component. Surrogate exclusionary radical feminists who have no interest in actually identifying with, relating to, or, God forbid, speaking to the people in question that they want to rescue from their bondage. They want to speak over their heads about the deeply anti-human commodification that they are, according to them, suffering.
DD: As you just alluded to, for these feminists, pregnancy is special in a similar way to how sex is special and so both commercial surrogacy and sex work are for them violations of something sacred. You write, however, “Their problem, as they make it known, is more abstract, more fundamental than these aspects. The elision between exploitation and rape.” That’s a powerful, but very complex argument. Explain what you mean.
SL: Although it takes some steps to argue this, my sense, looking at the TERFs the SWERFs and the SERFs, and particularly thinking about the division of pregnancy espoused by the latter, is that the common thread…The problem at the heart of this truncated form of anti-capitalism is its vision of work as something that can be redeemed and enjoyed and in fact should be. The idea behind the rad feminist analysis of surrogacy as a kind of ultimate––the deepest form of capitalist violence that could ever be, is this idea that there is a moral obligation on us. And by us I guess I mean women, because that’s who they’re talking about. To lift ourselves out of the muck of forms of degradation that are in fact instituted by capitalism and colonialism and not within our individual control. It’s striking to me that there isn’t a conceptual equivalent for these feminists of rape culture when it comes to pregnancy. So one could speculate, why don’t they talk about gestational injury culture or something? Strangely enough there is a lot of feminist analysis, some of which the very same people are actually partial to when they’re talking about something else in a different conversation.
DD: You have a similar brand of feminism that both says heterosexual sex under patriarchy is impossible, so all heterosexual sex is rape. But who then suggests that basically gestating for wage labor is even more rape or something.
SL: Yes, it’s funny. There’s something deeply pessimistic about this willingness to talk about the lot of women in the household, in marriages with men, and even in the obstetric situation that most people experience in capitalist societies, as violent. But then when it comes to the enrollment of gestating bodies in a capitalist situation directly, a formal capitalist situation, rather than an informal indirectly mediated one, i.e. the household. Remember the household is also for me a sphere of gestational work. But as soon as it gets enrolled in a formal relation for these people, they forget all their critiques of everything that’s bad about pregnancy, motherhood, marriage, et cetera. That all goes out the window and suddenly you get the impression that something deeply beautiful is being desecrated. And I want to be clear. I’m not simply trying to do a blunt negation of the anti-surrogacy abolitionists critiques. Everything I say in the book about what’s bad about the industry overlaps with some of what they say. There is terrible lack of consent practices, there is deeply awful circumstances around bodily autonomy for surrogate workers. A lot of what they’re saying about the industry being bad is stuff that I also say, and go out of my way to say, in the book. But for them there is something beyond that, something metaphysical about the reduction of the human to a commodity that they believe is being singularly affected in this domain and not in others. And that’s a kind of moral and bioconservative and strangely pessimistic analysis of what it is.
DD: And certainly not a Marxist one because when it’s either rape and slavery versus pure consent and freedom they’re missing the question of the freeness of wage labor. Which in the Marxist sense workers are doubly free. They’re free to work, but they’re free to starve if they don’t work. So there’s a nuance that they can’t quite take in.
SL: Yeah, precisely. And the other element of Marxist praxis that they miss is that having a problem with an industry is no reason whatsoever to try and quash the ability of workers in that industry to fight in and against it.
DD: Just like with garment workers. The question isn’t whether you’re pro-textiles or anti-textiles, it’s whether you’re in solidarity with garment workers struggles or not.
SL: Right. And you don’t typically see people taking garment workers to be proponents of fashion or something. This sort of sensibility is missing from our account of gestational workers. But at the same time I do actually want to say that there are things we can glimpse about an alternative form of kinship in the accounts of these workers. The similarities and differences and realizations that can grow from the side by side experience of so-called surrogate and so-called non-surrogate baby making. There are unique perspectives that are being thrown up by history.
DD: You make gestational surrogacy into both a model and a metaphor of sorts, calling for a form of surrogacy that would respond to the very real problems of pregnancy rather than to the demand for genetic parenthood in the context of a global capitalist system that exploits a flexiblized global labor force. You not only turn the surrogacy debate on its head but you also hijack it to make this much more radical argument for the abolition of the family and for, I don’t know, communistic kinship? Is that the right phrase?
SL: That’s exactly right. There’s a sense in which despite having not really read any Hegel I am given to understand, partly because I’m at the end of a book tour at the moment, at the time of recording, I’ve just been learning what my book says from a whole variety of different people, which has been an incredible privilege. But it seems to me that I’m doing an accidental Hegelian move by positing that only families will abolish the family and only a real surrogacy could abolish surrogacy trademark as it were. This impoverished vision of what surrogacy means that contemporary biocapitalism has instituted, which is actually the least surrogate thing ever as I try to explain. There is so little real solidarity; real appreciation for how distributed and entangled and dependent on each other, literally co-constituted by each other, human bodies are in the surrogacy industry. There’s this famous quote from Gandhi where he was asked what he thought of Western civilization. And he said, I think it would be a very good idea. By the same token I think something like full surrogacy, although it is an unthinkable level of utopia, is something we should be bearing in mind when we think about how to organize our most intimate relations. Full surrogacy would be a situation where the authentic, original, authorized version of a relationship was no longer thinkable. There wouldn’t be anything to be surrogate to, because people would understand themselves as the product of many mothers and many people transgenerationally generally. And this is kind of already a latent reality. I understand the bedrock of life, although it is stolen and atomized and segregated by capitalist social relations, to be this much more tentacular, watery bed of comradely symbiogenesis, to use a Haraway word. Symbiogenesis being a very long, complicated word to designate the process of becoming and making with.
DD: I.e. actually existing kinship relationships that are anti or non-normative, however unintentionally. I want to try arguing another side of this, to ask the question I think some listeners might ask, which is: I wonder if the call for abolishing “the family” could miss something about how families, as they exist, can be not just these bleak Althusserian institutions that are totally instrumentalized by the reigning order to impose gender, class, and racial hierarchies, but also places of refuge, love, and resistance? In other words, does your provocative call for the abolition of the family, which I’m convinced by in many ways, does it politically risk making some people think that what you want to abolish includes the parts of their families that they like?
SL: Yeah, it does risk that, doesn’t it. It’s a very emotionally scary topic. One thing I’ve been learning on the road is that it’s best to be completely emotionally open about how scary this stuff is. I understand another part of Hegel to be a question of how we recognize ourselves only in a way through these institutions––the family and work, for example. And it is vertiginous to the point of actual unbearability to try and think oneself into a situation completely outside of what we currently think of as the family. I think it may be easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family, to coin a phrase, a much overused one. There is something about the phrase “family abolition” that I am still persuaded by. I think that includes its seeming––
DD: Its provocativeness does political work.
SL: Yeah, and I noticed that I was doing this placatory square quoting with my fingers around the phrase the family in order to signal to people in my talks that I’m not coming for your husband or your children. And then that was pointed out to me, and it’s a funny one. It’s simultaneously true that I’m not coming for those relations that––whoever you are out there, hi––you may have that are given to you in formats––
DD: You don’t have to hate your mother.
SL: Exactly. In fact, I very much hope that you have comradely liberatory forms of care within your so-called biofam. The xenofeminists have a category called xenofam, which they propose is equal to or greater than biofam. But crucially, your literal mother, father, uncle, aunt, whatever, may be just as respectful of your strangeness and your intimacy and your deserving of multiple sorts of, not just deserving, your need for, your right to multiple relations as any kind of more politically chosen commitment and engagement. Biofam can be equal to xenofam as they say, the xenofeminists. So yeah, there is a risk. And, of course, we are in this moment where “keep families together” and “stop family separation” are these enormous rubrics by which the anti-Trump resistance are acting by. And I’m far from the first to point out that there are limits to these slogans. They throw migrants under the bus who aren’t affiliated to a biological unit that can be interpreted legally by the genocidal border regime as a family. And they throw refugees from the nuclear family under the bus. For instance, it’s perfectly possible to deport youths to their deaths under the rubric “stop family separation,” “families belong together.” You don’t have to be an expert in queer theory to understand why, for some people, “keep families together” is a literally homicidal notion. The family is a very unsafe place for many of us. It’s where people are likely to get killed and/ or raped et cetera. At the same time, obviously those strategic uses, when negotiating with the status quo in a historical moment where aping the forms of the marriage-based nuclear family…Being able to somehow pass a mooted biogenetic test that the Trump administration wants to apply to migrants at the Mexico-American border. They literally want to do a DNA test to guard against “fake families,” which hawks right back to the policy in the ’50s of testing applicants for Chinese American citizenship where tests were implemented to disqualify vast swathes of people who were said to be “paper sons” or “paper daughters” of Chinese American naturalized people. And there’s been great scholarship on that, showing how that was a textbook imposition of a certain kind of structurally colonial notion of biogenetic familiarity. Because many of the so-called paper sons and daughters trying to migrate to America from China were actually real, as it were. Although, you want to avoid this kind of language. But they had kinship bonds that were substantive, just not genetic, with the people that they were trying to join. So basically I think what I’m trying to get out here is the idea that there is nothing ultimately in biogenetic forms of legitimation of caring relationships that serves liberatory ends in the immediate term and under a status quo that systematically tries to tear children from racialized and proletarian parents, especially mothers. There are of course situations in which the assertion of “blood ties” can be beneficial. But I think in the long run there is a deep need to really push against the epistemic boundaries of any kind of notion of “the good life” predicated on the logicality, and naturalness, and self-reproducingness, and automatic worthiness of protection of “the biological” when it comes to human beings. We can say, “people don’t belong in cages.” We can say, “people should never be separated from one another by the state.” We can say, “people belong together.” The history of utopian socialism is partly defined by this fight over the value of the family and so-called working families. For instance, Brecht was taken to task by some of his comrades for his commitment to the abolition of the working-class family. And I think that’s something that I, amongst others, am currently reviving.
DD: Well, Sophie Lewis, thank you very much.
SL: Thank you very much for having me on.
DD: Sophie Lewis is the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family from Verso. Lewis is a Philadelphia-based theorist, communist, unaffiliated PhD, affiliated with the Out of the Woods ecological writing collective, and an occasional translator, teaching part-time for the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Thank you for listening to The Dig from Jacobin Magazine.