The sacred nuclear family as the social epicentre of monogamy
One of the first blows of the 2008 crisis was the expulsion of its biggest victims: the families evicted for the non-payment of subprime mortgages. The subprime
turned out to be a financial business model that subverted two of the fundamental components of the Spanish state’s version of capitalism: the nuclear family and its foundational legal property, the private home. The banking industry, which has been the motor of the capitalist mode of production since its inception, seemed to have scraped the bone. (1)
However, the status of victimhood is governed —in this case, as in all others— by social legitimacy; and this social legitimacy is marked and tainted by specific social regimes. No one in the media made the move to discuss the structuralized poverty of excluded communities; no one mentioned the feedback cycles between vulnerability and misery; no one spoke of those who already lived on the street. Migration, prostitution and trans existence were understood, as today, as moral debates. Drug abuse, homelessness and street violence were seen as ballasts for the peace of the sacrosanct middle classes that, if anything, could be “resolved” with a beating, prisons and immigration detention centres, kicking the door down, or psychiatric hospitals and barbed wire.
In this way, the media narrative, well supported by organizations such as the then recently created Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) or, later, by the political party Podemos, fabricated a single victim subject (with social legitimacy): a single subject with the right to their own pain, to the trauma of sudden suffering and, therefore, with the right to reparation: the family. (2)
“The family”, this singular mystical collective, may be spoken without predicates, last names or embellishments because it is already under the effect of a specific social operation: the exclusion of those who are not considered “decent” families. Although The Family
no longer needs to be Catholic or Christian, what it cannot be, according to the dominant discourse, is Moorish
—that form of racialization so specific to the national-Catholic imagery of Spanish fascism—, nor gypsy, Chinese, or Sudaka; The Family
cannot be a migrant —the heavy global care chains are too wide reaching; its shadows, it seems, insufficient—; neither can The Family
have a whore mother or daughter, who must rather sustain an exemplary (sexual but especially feminine) morality. (3) This sacred family operates as a node of reproduction, not biological but social.
The social regimes mentioned—and those that have been left out for questions of space, such as the various forms of disability or psychiatrization—shape the forms of the family and its limits, which are bound by the bonds of imposed behaviours and customs, each with their particular histories and conditions. The State, as the sovereign of administrative violence, attempts to control them, confining them as much as possible to a single central administrative unit: the holy family, the nuclear family. In the bureaucratic circuits that cut across communities and practices of care, this unit is the fundamental element, the rule with which to measure all returns on capital: “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family to a mere money relation”, the Communist Manifesto reminds.
As a node of social reproduction, the traditional family also functions as a patriarchal strategy for dominating women, through care, love, sex and biological reproduction. (4) From the perspective of the heterosexual matrix, and by the divine grace of the sexual division of labour (paid and unpaid), maternity and child rearing —that enormous investment of socially reproductive labour— crystallizes in particular roles. This extends to paternity too, which typically plays an even more central role in the differential education associated with gender. (5) It is not surprising, taking into account its traditional(ist) structure, that the nuclear family as an institution behaves as a key vector of social normativity.
In Spain, for example, official LGBT activism sometimes uses the expression “diverse families” to promote “acceptance” and “tolerance” of homoparental nuclear families and, often, to advance the demand for reproductive exploitation as part of the rights of gaypitalized
LGTB communities. On the other hand, adoption is sometimes proposed as an alternative. The fact is that both are proposed as possibilities, regulated or not, for constructing The Family. Rarely mentioned, if ever, are the ways in which state administration denies the rights of affiliation to non-cisheterosexual families, and with this the denial of the associated forms of care and legal protections. Non-monogamy or shared co-parenting structures are seen through the prism of the nuclear family —for example, there is currently no legal recognition of non-cohabiting people in a “marriage” or “domestic partnership”—and it is prohibited across the various regional legislation frameworks for a person to have a legal link with more than one domestic partnership. In fact, a “second marriage” would be considered a “crime against family relations”, punishable “with a prison sentence of six months to one year”. (6)
The aforementioned system of transnational adoption, so often presented in an uncritical manner, is itself subject to significant problems associated not only with the traditional form of the family, but especially the way in which migration and race are popularly framed. María José Rodríguez Jaume comments, in the wake of so many other reflections on the subject, that “international adoptions are just one example of the displacement of children from their countries of origin, due to war, hunger and disease, towards rich countries”. With the transracial identities associated with the adoption of racialized children by white families, there are considerable absences regarding the kind of education and tools available to the minor as a racialized person
. The debates around adoption seal a permanent silence regarding the white saviour complex that permeates Maternity
as an institution, markedly influenced by whiteness. The real causes of the “abandonment of the child” —wars, climate catastrophes and the poverty that surrounds and traverses these— appear as mere misfortunes dissociated from the migratory processes to which they actually adhere. Geopolitical conflicts and the interests that structure them are never put into words, nor are the histories of colonialism, whose bloodshed continues to flow from the hinges of the capitalist machine. (7)
On the other hand, and to the extent that the transnational adoption system reproduces the institution of the nuclear family, at the same time it puts into discussion the constructed character of cishetero-centred motherhood, since the processes of childbirth and upbringing appear dissociated. This multi-maternity
questions the singularity of the supposed biological and social aspects inscribed by the word itself. The same practices that are organized around, and for, monogamous norms also contain a decentralizing principle that deepens them even as, in the same move, it throws them into doubt. (8) The effort, however, is useless: with the necessary help of whiteness, monogamy pulls every possible alternative towards its centre of gravity. The conception of parenting and education that constitutes the institution of motherhood continues to be written in the grammar provided, via repronormativity, by the monogamous system. (9)
According to the monogamous frameworks themselves, monogamy is nothing more than a one-to-one exclusive relationship, a (natural, pre-political) promise of a life together —albeit admittedly tacit, in relation to its supposed and apparent omnipresence and omnipotence. In the most liberal of cases, and spurred on by the spirit of tolerance, when it comes to relating through love and sexuality, it is simply a possibility, an option “just as valid as any other”. Let's not judge
, it is said, each person knows what they like best
. The personal is precariously balanced on the shifting sands of the social order. Meanwhile, the spectre of the political hovers threateningly.
Monogamy as a mode of social organisation; capitalism as a means
Monogamy is not, however, just a concrete individual practice, it is not a “relationship model” in competition with other (non-monogamous) models. If it is even useful to talk about monogamy as such, it is by envisioning it as a system
of values and as a set of supposed agreements (pre-programmed, predefined and arranged in advance) through which we learn to exist. It is, in logical terms and firstly, a way of structuring the defining aspects of a concrete relationality through which we subsist and put our lives at stake. That is, it is a way of defining our life —our identity as such, what we are
— in the social environment through which we constitute ourselves. To reduce “monogamous practice” to taste or interest, or to a particular unfolding of these implicit norms (e.g., sexual exclusivity), is already to read its concrete forms through the very interiority of the logic that is proper to it. In other words, it is to see the social world through and for that which we are
, and in this sense both monogamy and non-monogamy through the same socially institutionalized logic of the monogamous system. The very conception of “family” —the nuclear family, of course, but also the extended family, which is more important and fundamentally relevant beyond the Anglo-Saxon context— and its possible de jure
or de facto
extensions towards assimilated subjects are, in this aspect, social units whose meanings already obey the monogamous system.
The power of the monogamous system resides in its pursuit of structure; in its hierarchizing and mandatory nature; in its defining capacity and in its existential imposition. The structuring power of the monogamous system establishes itself, firstly, as a possible way of relationally inhabiting the social and, secondly, through the “ideological” modes of certifying it—two fundamental operations that seal the supposed naturalness of an order defined through “affectivities” and “blood”. No order is as powerful as the ones we defend as life and live as convictions. Nothing is as absolute as “you and yours”. (10)
Although the first aspect can be confused with the institution of the family, I would like to propose here that the concept of the monogamous system
functions rather as a theoretical-practical excess: it goes beyond the family, it generates a social-epistemological order that gives meaning to a set of possible ways of living and relating. The family may well be the epicentre of the monogamy of European colonial-imperialist ancestry ––a successful coagulation based essentially on white, sane, able-bodied cisheterosexual reproducibility (11)–– but the seismic waves of monogamy break across all human spheres, affecting their very nature. Loving exclusivity is a social norm and a collective mysticism, which foresees (id est
, confirms) and makes absolute the relational hierarchy through which all possible and obligatory care flows —turning sexuality and love into (mandatory) formulas for exchange and making specific gender relations immediate. The monogamous system also affects the homosocial relationships we are educated in, and so prescribe the paths of affection and care. In this monogamous order, Vasallo points out, there is an “ethics of justice” that obeys a logic “of equivalence”: do ut des
, I give (to you) so that you give (to me). (12) This relational ethics, for the most part, takes its shape and meaning as a specific social milieu —something that is salient from a social Marxist perspective, which highlights the links between capitalism as a mode of production and social relations.
The social milieu in which monogamy operates proceeds in logical-political terms from the capitalist mode of production. (13) The link between capitalism and the family (more monogamous than nuclear) has been analysed and highlighted by socialist authors in general and Marxists in particular, and later by Marxist Feminists in the debates that ensued from the political heat of the movements of the sixties, seventies and eighties. Finally, new life has been breathed into these discussions with the radical return of these critiques and the renewed attention to value theory across the development of Social Reproduction Theory and theories of communization, which have had key Queer contributions. (14) Gleeson & Griffiths note: "[T]he family is central not only to the maintenance of capitalism in terms of providing a space ‘outside’ the budget crises of states and the externalities of profit on which to unload the human needs of (individual) workers, but that it is central to the resilience of capitalism under conditions of crisis and depression, precisely because it is both structurally and ideologically flexible... Indeed, it is these features which make it ideal as the perpetual site of pitched battle between conservatives and liberals who share the agenda of “strengthening” the family while supporting capital’s assault on wages and streamlining reproductive functions of the capitalist state."
Trans Marxist authors such as Jules Joanne Gleeson, Nat Raha or Kay Gabriel highlight the locus of social reproduction from a queer and transsexual/transgender perspective. (15) In this regard, Nat Raha comments: “To formulate a queer and trans social reproduction requires expanding the concept of social reproduction to make legible the caring labour that enables and maintains queer and trans people and lives.” (Gleeson & O’Rourke, op. cit., 105)
The queer/trans perspective then works to explore an outside to the nuclear family imposed by the phobic abjection that Gabriel points out and analyses. It is also, I would add, a comment on the theoretical-practical excess that is monogamy as a system.
Conclusions: trans non-monogamies as immanent criticism and the end of the State
Against the “ethics of justice” of monogamous thought, Vasallo suggests, the “ethics of care” opposes. Against the state of things, the state of things. Against the ends
of the State, the end
of the State. Non-monogamies —which are, perhaps by their very definition, consensual and ethical
— codify the care flows that run through the centre of the forms of social reproduction that reach beyond the institution of the family.
If gender, as Gabriel adds to Haraway and Harvey’s comments, is a strategy of capital accumulation, (16) I would like to add that non-monogamies are a strategy of redistribution of care, a form of organized resistance
; and, insofar as they emerge from relational and existential spaces produced and constrained by our class positions within predatory capitalism, they are precisely an immanent exercise in a practical critique
; the stakes of life for life against the magnificent beast that is the hybrid of capital and State; a communist bet for a dignified daily life that is neither definitive nor perfectly definable; a cry and a song from the body, when no one yet has determined what the body can do
. A maxim against ableism and a debilitating capitalism: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”
In place of the old monogamous society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
(1) See: López, I., y Rodríguez, E. (2010), Fin de ciclo. Financiarización, territorio y sociedad de propietarios en la onda larga del capitalismo hispano (1959-2010), Traficantes de Sueños, Madrid.
(2) For a quick introduction, read: Alabao, N. (3 de junio de 2021), «Cuando la utopía es la familia, la raza o la nación», CTXT. For a longer text, see: Cooper, M. (2019), Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Zone Books; Sara R. Farris (2017), In the Name of Women's Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism, Durham: Duke University Press. Y, particularmente; Cabezas, M. y Vega, C. (ed.) (2022), La reacción patriarcal. Neoliberalismo autoritario, politización religiosa y nuevas derechas, Bellaterra, Barcelona.
(3) On racism and migration in Spain, see: Pérez Orozco, A. y López Gil, S. (2011), Desigualdades a flor de piel: cadenas globales de cuidados. Concreciones en el empleo de hogar y políticas públicas, ONU Mujeres; El Mouali, F. (2021), «Inmigración del Sur global: Relatos silenciados de mujeres migrantes en España», en Geopolítica(s), 12(1), pp. 11-21; y Douhaibi y Amazian (2019), La radicalización del racismo. Islamofobia de Estado y prevención antiterrorista, Cambalache, Oviedo. On the Gypsy and Roma community and anti-gypsy racism, see: Agüero, S. y Jiménez, N. (2020), Resistencias gitanas, Libros.com, Madrid; Kóczé, Zentai, Jovanović y Vincze (ed.), El movimiento de mujeres romaníes. Luchas y debates en Europa central y oriental, Kaótica, Madrid. On sex work, see: Mac, J. y Smith, M. (2018), Revolting Prostitutes. The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, Verso, Londres; Sánchez Perera, P. (2023), Crítica de la razón puta. Cartografías del estigma de la prostitución, La Oveja Roja, Madrid.
(4) Feminist criticism has insisted on denouncing the domination and repressive character of the sanctioned nuclear family structure for over half a century, though it is worth mentioning two important and very recent books: Sophie Lewis (2022),Abolish the Family. A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, London: Verso; and Céline Bessière & Sibylle Gollac (2023), The Gender of Capital. How Families Perpetuate Wealth Inequality, Harvard University Press (Trans. Juliette Rogers). Two other examples of classic feminist reflections that I would like to note here are: Silvia Federici (2012), Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, Oakland, CA: PM Press; and Michèle Barrett (2014; first published in 1980), Women's Oppression Today. The Marxist/Feminist Encounter (3rd edition; foreword by Kathi Weeks), London: Verso.
(5) See: Carter, Michael J. (2014), “Gender Socialization and Identity Theory”, Social Sciences, 3(2), pp. 242-263. .
(6) Ley Orgánica 10/1995, de 23 de noviembre, del Código Penal; art. 217. Boletín Oficial del Estado, 281, 24 de noviembre de 1995. Última actualización, 28 de abril de 2023. . It is worth remembering that the historical justifications that consolidate monogamy as a necessary condition of a marriage or civil union also place, in the sources of current Spanish law, heterosexual relationships in that position, in exactly the same movement. See, e.g.: Labaca Zabala, Mª Lourdes (2005, 1 de abril), “La protección de la monogamia como elemento esencial del matrimonio: precedentes históricos”, Noticias Jurídicas. .
(7) See: Rodríguez Jaume, María José (2019), «El “nuevo racismo” desde la lente de la “migración silenciosa”: la adopción interracial en España», Migraciones internacionales, 10; Marre, Diana (2009), “Los silencios de la adopción en España”, Revista de Antropología Social, 18, 97-126. More extensively and critically: Silvia Posocco (2014), “On the queer necropolitics of transnational adoption in Guatemala”, on Haritaworn, Kuntsman y Posocco (2014) (ed.), Queer Necropolitics, New York: Routledge.
(8) San Román, Beatriz (2015), «De la dificultad de pensar la construcción de la identidad sin anclajes fijos: la adopción transnacional en España», Scripta Nova. Revista electrónica de geografía y ciencias sociales, 19(5010-5).
(9) On repronormativity, see: Weissman, A. L. (2016), “Repronormativity and the Reproduction of the Nation-State: The State and Sexuality Collide”, Journal of LGBT Family Studies, 13(3). Gayle Rubin also associates monogamy with this framework, although long before the term was coined: Rubin, Gayle (2011), “Thinking Sex: Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Deviations. A Gayle Rubin Reader, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 137-181. First published in Caroles S. Vance (1984), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, Boston: Routledge.
(10) I want to add that, although I distinguish in logical terms between the “possible relationalities” and the “ideologies” that sociohistorically construct them, I do not conceive of these two instances as separate in onto-epistemic terms, in the traditional sense. Here I particularly make use of the kind of logical distinction that Badiou makes, and specifically what he calls the “metastructure”. For a summary, see: García, R. M. (2018), Pensar la novedad. Sujeto y ética en Alain Badiou. Trabajo Final de Grado; particularmente, pp. 14-17. For the original reference, see: Badiou, Alain (2006), Being and Event, Continuum; esencialmente, Parts II and III.
(11) There is a strong anti-sanist movement in Spain that I personally have not had the fortune to meet in Anglo-Saxon circles, where the term “mentally ill” still denotes, at least in many revolutionary leftist circles, an emphasis on the supposed “functioning other than the brain” and the psychiatric atomization of the individual, forgetting in this process the political causes that conceptually and existentially construct the suffering of impoverished people throughout the world —represented in the theory in the social model of disability posed by Michael Oliver, or because of the debilitating aspects that capitalism produces in human “mental health”, to comment on the reflections of Jasbir Puar. See: Oliver & Barnes (2012), The New Politics of Disablement, Palgrave Macmillan; Puar (2017), The Right to Maim. Debility, Capacity, Disabiliy, Duke University Press.
(12) A good part of the conception of this essay and of my ideas about monogamy as a system are based on the reflections of Brigitte Vasallo (2018), Pensamiento monógamo, terror poliamoroso, Madrid: La Oveja Roja.
(13) Remembering here Juliet Mitchell’s warning and comments in her criticism of Millet's use of the concept of patriarchy: “… there can be no such thing as a general [patriarchal] system. (…) Any political system is always a specific aggregate”. See: Mitchell (2015; first published in 1971), Women's Estate, London: Verso, 82-84.
(14) To summarize, I think it is worth rescuing the seminal text by Lise Vogel, also in relation to the commented review of the classical Marxists: Vogel, Lise (2013), Marxism and the Oppression of Women. Toward a Unitary Theory. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books; first published in the USA in 1983 by Rutgers University Press. For two outstanding texts of Marxist Feminism, see: Mariarosa Dalla Costa & Selma James (1975), The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, London: Falling Wall Press; and Delphy, Christine (1984),Close to Home. A materialist analysis of women's oppression, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press. See also: Bhattacharya, Arruzza & Fraser ed. (2017), Social Reproduction Theory. Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, London: Pluto Press; Kirstin Munro (October 2019), “‘Social Reproduction Theory,’ Social Reproduction, and Household Production”, Science & Society, 83(4), 451–468. Finally, and of course: O’Brien, M. (2019), “To Abolish the Family: The Working-Class Family and Gender Liberation in Capitalist Development”, Endnotes, 5 (The Passions and the Interests), 360–417; and Griffiths & Gleeson (2015), “Kinderkommunismus”, Subversion Press — the passage quoted below this note belongs to this text.
(15) Note the text: Gabriel (2020), “Gender as an accumulation strategy”, in are.na; and also the chapters by J. J. Gleeson and Nat Raha included in the volume: Gleeson & O’Rourke (ed.) (2020), Transgender Marxism, Pluto Press. I feel particularly indebted to these authors, for having put into words ideas that I was close to articulating — albeit in a more disorganized way— myself.
(16) In my opinion, Gabriel’s essay loses clarity and interest to the extent that it theorizes using a psychoanalysis lens what could be posed through historical materialism — a task that I would like to carry out elsewhere. For everything else, see: “Nature, Politics, and Possibilities: A Debate and Discussion with David Harvey and Donna Haraway”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 13(5), 507-527; and Harvey (2000), Spaces of Hope, Edinburgh University Press (Ch. 6: “The body as an accumulation strategy”).