What the hell is the family?

 This is a text I translated from Rosso, an Italian communist journal, from '74. It's written by the rather formally named “Study Group on the Family In Collaboration with the Workers’ Committee ALFA-FACE-IBM.” It is, in short, an attempt to figure out the economic and ideological function of the family form, particularly in its Italian incarnation. (That is to say, a very strong, deeply embedded, and quite particular incarnation.) Many of its analyses won't be particularly surprising to some readers, as it draws on the better-known texts of Dalla Costa and James and on the theses of Lotta Femminista more generally.  Nevertheless, it helps flesh out the debates of the time and offers a number of sharp, rightfully bilious takes on dynamics that - no surprise - remain as cussedly true now as ever.  Nearly 40 years haven't changed the fact that the operational structures of the capitalist family are intolerable, no matter the love one might have for those who fall within one's personal zone of "dirty laundry."  And some stains can only be washed in the street.  The family may likely be one of them.  (Endnotes follow the text to explain translation choices and odd moments.)


What the hell is the family?1

It's at once easy and difficult to speak of the family: in certain ways, we grasp it totally, we’ve already got it, or we're just about to nail it. It seems a thing totally quotidian, totally normal, that seems almost stupid to name in the midst of a political discourse. Because the family, our family, is a private thing, our personal problem, from which can arise conflicts with parents, with a wife, with a husband, with aunts, with our sons. But this is normal, "it's always been like that," and everyone resolves it by oneself. Unfortunately...

Outside the family, we live labor, the factory, the office, friends and comrades, politics, social problems, economic problems; inside the family we can shed our professional and social roles, we can show ourselves in a "human" mode, with our emotions, our anxieties, we can escape, we can do what we feel like, because it all stays "in the family." Now we take account of the fractures which lie beneath this scission of our life. And, therefore, we want to understand what is the real function that the family still has in relation to the complete exploitation to which we are subordinated day after day. We want to know what it is, who it serves…

The family, as a material and juridical institution, as ideology, is one of capital’s major agents for making the process of exploitation function. With this we don’t want to put in doubt the sincerity and the need that each of us has to express the affection, the love felt for one’s husband, for one’s wife and for one’s children, indeed.2 But exactly because we are, in general, constrained to satisfying our affective needs solely inside the family, it follows that we frequently no longer treat the persons closest to us with love.

Defining the family as “agent of capital,” as an institution that acts fully in the interests of the bourgeoisie, we refer above all to a series of functions the family carries out, which, taken together, are inseparable from both objective-economic and subjective-affective aspects: the acceptance of authority, of the social hierarchy that teaches us to breath the family like air (hence without even noticing it); the division of the world into public and political affairs and private and personal affairs; the lives of others not as autonomous persons, on the basis of how they express themselves, but rather always as persons with determined roles: they are children and therefore innocent, cretins, incapable; they are women and therefore weak, emotional and passive, they are men and therefore strong, active, aggressive, they are old and therefore senile, useless or ridiculous, etc; in short, the division of society into classes that the relation of authority and subordination in the family prepares us to accept, and the division of men into social roles that divides us further into men, women, children and the old within the same class.3 It’s for this reason that the political discourse on the family seems to us as revolutionary as that on the factory, it’s for this that the opposition between the “bourgeois family” to be abolished and the “socialist family” to be constructed, as posed in the tradition of the worker’s movement, is revisionist in the true sense of the word, in that it represents the penetration of bourgeois ideology into the proletarian.


If the family didn’t exist, they would have to invent it. Think about it a little, don’t just laugh… The world we know and capitalist society in its particular mode is characterized by the division of labor that, at the same, exactly because it’s capitalist, is a hierarchical division by age, sex, and social role…

The familial world, on its side, is characterized by the division of roles: the father who works and brings home the cash, the mother who cares for the kids, the kids who have to obey, the grandfather who is fundamentally superfluous, etc.

And this seems totally natural to us. Yet when we come to know the reality outside our families, as it happens, we find also there those dividing functions, by class, by sex, by age, by hierarchy, money, power, etc. And, very nearly, it again seems natural! And so, having learned the hierarchy of roles in the family, they easily have us believe that this division of labor was always there, that it must be in this mode, because, in fact “it was always like this.” Wasn’t it always true that “who doesn’t work doesn’t eat?” - that “the women’s place is in the home and with the kids?” - that “the man takes and holds the position of command and responsibility?”

These small examples reveal plenty just what the role is that the family ideologically conditions in all of us.

The principle function of the family is that of the production and reproduction of labor power, whether materially in regards to the birth and raising of children, the care and feeding of various family members who sell themselves on the labor market, or from the psychological/affective perspective, with regards to education, sexuality, affective needs. The familial organization furnishes capital, day after day, with workers regularly fed and dressed in a manner modest but decent, sexually satisfied but not too much, so as to not disturb the punctuality and rhythm of labor, organized and resigned in accord with the hierarchy of factory and beyond.

In sum: immediately integrated persons. And moreover, it assures the the continuity of all of this for future generations.

All this comes though a privatized mode, entrusted to women’s work, who reproduce labor power as mothers and housewives: a heavy labor, not salaried, socially unrecognized, and barely thanked. Commending this work to work who carry it out privately within the family, it satisfies various needs of capital:

- it can keep down the cost of labor-power: in fact, if the goods and services required for the reproduction of labor power can be provided at low cost thanks to the work of housewives, bosses can keep salaries relatively low.

- many needs satisfied privately in the family could be satisfied socially, but as of now, for various motives in line with the economic and ideological order, they serve to buttress the organization of the nuclear family, each with its own house, furnishings, appliances, toys for the kids. This organization permits, above all, keeping one half of the population (women) in a state of near welfare; moreover, socialization of these services would require major structural reforms.

Not just this. The little nuclear family, typical of advanced capitalism, composed of parents and children, became important as a nucleus of consumption. This has a double consequence: if we think of the exigency of industrial capital to produce and sell ever more products to realize its profits, we understand immediately the utility of this organization: every little nucleus buys and consumes its television, its washing machine, its toys, etc. Central for the ideology of consumption, which comes to present itself as a true and proper style of life, is the woman-housewife, who manages the salary of the head of the family. Advertising aims above all at her: the woman-housewife, deprived of any autonomy, deprived of salary, deprived of a creative job, routinely frustrated and annoyed, is to called to positively live out her subordination. The “right” choice of various products is suggested as her particular specialization; misery and limitation, absurdity and the repetitive fatigue, all the imbecility of domestic labor, as it is, is gilded as the vocation of woman. In this mode the existent family structure will be utilized and reinforced: the identity of the housewife based on her house, her washer, her television. But this isn’t just a problem for the housewife: along with her, all the components of the family receive a fundamental lesson in “private property” and, perhaps, we are all the more exploited, expropriated, proletarianized the more that we grasp onto those few things that are “ours.”

In this sense, the institution of the family, which for the bourgeoisie - and for none other - functions so as to materially hand down private property, functions in the subordinate classes to conserve the idea of private property. This aspect is fundamental, because a system, based on private property, can function to the degree which, in whatever mode, we who do not actually own anything still believe.

<- The production of a certain type of labor power, adapted to the needs of capital, and also at the personal and subjective level. The necessary capital of efficient, assiduous workers who accept their exploitation without rebelling, who are punctual, ordered, egotistical, scabs, and interested in nothing other than their own interests. And also in these duties the family reveals its height: through the interiorization of the roles of familial relations, it succeeds in producing individuals who, even before entering the office or the factory, are conditioned and prepared for the subordinate social and laboring roles that await them.


If we start to consider the family in these terms, it isn’t just as a grouping of individual persons, but as a structure within which, in spite of us, we are all conditioned in a certain way and of which we have to take account, in which we find the same relations of production, described by Marx, as that of the entire capitalist society. There don’t exist only relations of class - “the man is the bourgeoisie, the woman is the proletariat,” as Engels said - but the same relations between people that become relations between things, between sellers.

… It’s really through values given in the family that we start to live the relations with others through the optic of exchange: “I give you this, but only if you give me something else in exchange.” “How much we did for you, and you don’t even give us this and that other” is a recurrent formula between parents and children. And in fact, the parent-child relation is always a relation of possession. The parent has the authority, the money, his force, his power of being adult to impose on the kid. The woman has the relation of material-affective exchange with her man, she lives inasmuch as her family needs her. In this mode we learn from a young age to ration our emotions and our affects like a cake, a piece here, a piece there, but make sure they repay it! All this isn’t devoid of violence, surely… the violence that is done, that we do to ourselves and to others is always the same violence we find outside our houses, in the class struggle, in the school, in the factory. In certain modes it appears even within our private sphere, at the house, in the family, where one would expect it less; we pack in a lot of violence that public life wouldn’t dare to make explicit; often it’s easier, it comes more naturally, to beat kids rather than to stand up to the boss…


Bourgeois society, since its birth, bases itself on the formal liberty and equality of all individuals; it no longer uses immediate physical violence, constriction, slavery and people as private property as during feudalism. In sum, “all are free to sleep under the bridges.” But if immediate physical violence doesn’t exist as it did, in feudalism, for example, there are other things to make sure that individuals, that all of us, are kept in line, acting against our interests. Because it isn’t in my real interest to produce profits for the boss, it isn’t my interest to mistreat my family members, it isn’t my interest, in any case, to get myself treated badly by them and to accept it like a natural thing. But how did this happen? The explanation isn’t simple, because it touches on the mechanisms within our depths for which which the institution of the family had and still has an very important function: the acceptance of authority, the acceptance of social hierarchy and, in the final analysis, the acceptance of our subordination as something we want from ourselves… the young child who refuses dirtiness, whereas, with a bit of good sense, we know how they love puddles, the boys at school who pit themselves one against the other, and all against the girls, in an absurd competition to recite that material with which their real lives has so little to do… How come?

How does the family enter into all of this? It enters, all right. It constructs inside of us that type of consciousness that, at the right moment, tells us: you need to do, you need to obey, you need, above all, not to do… We all recognize in certain ways this internal voice that gives us instructions, that wins out when in truth we have little desire to do certain things. And where does it come from, if not from our parents? Once again: regardless of whether or not we are particularly naughty or repressed, they have, nevertheless and in general, directed us, forbade us, ordered and many times suffocated us with their “love.” Just as they learned from their families, with all the best intentions.

From the first years of life, the child picks up the principal norms and laws of the society in which we live and acts in accordance with them. The person who imposes on the child these roles is in some ways the father, the authority of the father that derives from the fact that it’s he, who within the family has the power and makes the money, is the “head of the family” [capo-famiglia]. The father is the person that has his identity outside the family, in work, in the public sphere and therefore it’s he, above all, who carries the laws of society into the family, it’s he who represents norms and authority. Identifying himself with the father, the kid identifies himself also with the laws and the norms he represents. The first times it needs to be imposed on the child: no, this is prohibited! Here, this needs to be done! (Albeit with some slaps, because the child is young and “doesn’t get it”) - after which, if the education succeeds, the child does what the father commands, without the further need of slaps and yelling, the child does things (and perhaps starts to impose them on other children) that he admittedly doesn’t understand, not knowing why he does them! Other things, other attitudes to be learned, are identified with the mother, now as before, the woman subordinated and pressed into service; this is a reality that doesn’t escape the child. Seeing his parents, the child perceives the subordination of the mother and therefore that of woman, so much so that the prohibitions and the orders of the mother become harder to take seriously…

Therefore the child doesn’t just interiorize and make his personality around laws and social norms, but also immediately interiorizes the entire hierarchy. Once the child self-identifies with the father, the parents, and hence with social norms and their hierarchy, once having perceived others on the basis of the functions and roles they play, the child will tend, in the future, to automatically reproduce the same mechanisms. Later in his life, faced with various figures of authority, he will meet: the professor, the commander, the judge or the law, the boss, the state, etc, and he will show a great susceptibility to them.

This process, within which we are “socialized” for our future functions in this society, is typically bourgeois, and the place where it all comes from, as well as its components, is the family. As such, to leave this struggle outside of a revolutionary strategy is serious. One more time, the class enemy is not only outside, in the factory, in the state, it has well and truly infiltrated inside of us. If we don’t understand this, we will never understand why it’s so difficult to make the revolution and we will know even less how to do it!


The development of capitalism brought an ever-growing socialization of production and public life: the big factory, buildings, the group vacation, the mass media, the supermarket etc. At the same time, however, all of an important part of our life remains confined in a totally isolated, private environment: the family. This contradiction is not casual and is of no small importance. In fact, here too we have to deal with a fundamental contradiction of bourgeois society, fundamental because the whole system holds together to the degree that it perpetuates itself. And it perpetuates itself through the function of the law of profit. Public life, production and administration at the political, social, and state level comes to be rationally directed, with calculation and coldness in an impersonal manner. All the “individual” needs of people, bourgeois included, come to be confined in the private sphere, in the family. Classical puritanical ideology split man in two: the professional figure, political and public, who must function without oozing “human weakness”, and the human being with all his emotions, sexuality, and aggression. These two spheres came to be rigorously divided: public affairs were declared taboo in the family, such that the wife had to be kept far from the storm outside the house and the kids would not understand, but even more separated were personal problems, immediately identified with those of the family and excluded from leaking into, or taking part in, public life. “Dirty laundry” must be washed in the house.

This is the formulation given to the bourgeoisie - but we’re all victims of this. To reiterate, this doesn’t just concern ideology or good will; things de facto stay in this mode, for there remains practically no space outside of the family zone to satisfy certain needs. For those who refuse the norms, there are heavy sanctions: solitude, the fear of aging, isolation, insecurity, etc. Obviously the situation isn’t equal for all: the spaces of relative liberty vary according to class, and inside of this are the secondary conditions of sex, age, etc. To the extent that this increases the material constraints - economically, that is - persons are primarily constrained to relegate the satisfaction of their needs to the family sphere. With 8 hours of hard work, with the commute and other inconveniences such as irritation, exhaustion, and general discouragement, the dream easily becomes that of “peace” in the family; at least there you can hope to find what’s usually denied. And of course, what you rarely find will come to be seen as the exception to the rule.

It’s the basic acceptance of this separation between public and private, rational and irrational, political and private that will be attacked, not the individual who falls back on his family as a solution to his problems. For those needs are real, but the family is mistaken response to our needs.

The separation between public and private comes to be lived as SEX

all caps in the original
, as the most “ours” of all our factors. And this false respect for the private serves to mask the incredibly heavy conditioning that accompanies every individual from birth and out of which emerges a real sexual “politics” which, while mutating into forms to adapt to the diverse needs of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless maintains constant characteristics.

The basic idea is that the pleasure principle is scandalously incompatible with the idea of performance and exchange.4 An individual dominated by the desire to get a taste of life and who refuses to quantify her/his needs is unpredictable, ungovernable, bizarre. Who succeeds, even amongst the most democratic, in imagining how one could be without feeling a dull resistance? It’s not for nothing that we have fear and shame for the imagination of our freedom. It [i.e. the social order of capital] needs reality to present itself as the impossibility of the pleasure principle, because reality is the most instructive of theories. It needs to find a secure place, reliable, able to carry to the end this project of sexual alienation without which it isn’t possible to reproduce on a large scale the psychological profile of the modern slave. This privileged place is the family. Because in the family sex becomes “licit” [lecito, i.e. permissible], and the pleasure principle takes that particularly distorted form of “the union of flesh and spirit” toward productive ends, it is therefore obviously limited to adults and heterosexual couples. And an adult is, in any case, one who has passed through the hands of a familial education. One who has been able to suck the maternal breast only as long as there was milk and who is yelled at for substituting the thumb because “it deforms the mouth,” one who cannot touch oneself, masturbate oneself, sniff oneself; one who will be progressively estranged from her own body to the point of disgust in shame at other flesh in general and who will experience the physical dimension with a profound sense of guilt. Someone who has to learn and distance oneself from her own objects of love and channel her sexual instincts into the assumption of a role. Someone who, if a man, must mutilate, violate, and destroy his emotions and all that might trigger them; and, if a woman, must represent the very symbol of this mutilation, become flesh, prey, temptation, the impossibility of autonomy because of being the maximum function of the autonomy of others.

Every adult at last finds that he has been granted his sexual role, when the disaster is already consummated.5 He reaches that point already apprehensive, with a profound sense of guilt and inadequacy and with a boundless greed that renders him envious of every pleasure, jealous and possessive. He’s therefore ready to hide himself, to normalize himself, and to normalize his children and all others, such as adolescents, who aren’t already ready. And he will educate them as they must be educated, so that they must even as a child be able to see the enormity of their own alienation. But the relatively privileged bearer of the model of sexuality imposed by the system isn’t identical to the norm that he knows he must “present.” As such, a critique of the family that puts individuals with their needs on one side and capital on the other is a critique that, while striking at the sign has a short breath. The family isn’t “one side”, it’s in fact “one side” with that particular violence that bears the power of one sex over another. Because already today the sexual oppression of woman is sanctified within the double work6 and within the family. Because in that particular form of the renunciation, entirely female, of the possession of one’s own body, is born the passivity, submission, the not-knowing how to think for oneself, and that romantic vocation of the servitude of a man that in good faith passes for “Love.”

Paradoxically, the woman so desexualized and violated enters into a contact with reality, through her sex, with her being woman that conditions her step by step. In this society, the woman is always and everywhere a sexual object; it’s with respect to her sexual utility that she comes to be qualified (the “old” woman for example is valued least of all). And her “beauty”, that thing so perishable and subjective, comes to be qualified and reduced to merely a measure of her social acceptability.

The woman remains object to the degree in which every autonomous expression of her sexuality is impeded. So the ideal is to always see her as the possibility, entirely without danger, that she will get “fucked,” “screwed,” and “laid.” And then redeemed through the benevolent love of a man who puts himself low for her, and for her alone, through marriage, to consider her his equal, to insert her in the “world,” just as his father did before, in exchange, naturally, for a sum of services rendered with love and therefore, obviously, unpaid.

That's why the family, the couple who is presented as a unit must be seen as having distinct parts. We must continually discern the opposition and impossible unity between, on one side, the woman, sexually deformed in the way we know, who symbolizes the recomposition of the entire emotional sphere for the man, and, on the other side, the man, reduced to that which is known in capitalist production, who must recompose the whole social and political sphere for the woman. So desires the ideology of the union of marriage - the ugly reality of which we all know a little. The ideology of the “naturalness” of this state of affairs is hard to attack, all the more so because the fact of procreation - the fact that there are good and bad women who have children - is a natural given, on which they easily construct a reactionary discourse. Given their “objective” roles as housewives and mothers, given secular sexual oppression, given the state of ignorance in which they are kept with violence, women were, at first and frequently, conservative and reactionary. But this is also the other side of the coin: precisely for the reason that they are at the center of the whole family order, precisely for the reason that they are the “weakest link,” precisely because the various forms of oppression - the oppression of class, sex, and age - are all supported by their role, it is them, it is women, above all, who have an objective interest in ruining this condition.

Study Group on the Family

In Collaboration with the Workers’ Committee



from “Rosso. Journal within the movement.” May 1974, n. 10

1 The title in Italian is “Ma che cos'è la famiglia”, which literally means “But what is the family.” However, the expression “Ma che cos'è...” carries the sense of exasperated confusion, a “what the hell is this thing?” Hence, the liberty taken in translating it as such.
2 In Italian, the gendering of the possessive depends on the gender of the possessed object, not of the possessing subject: hence in the original, even if it is assumed that it is her husband, his wife, it technically remains grammatically neutral. Throughout the text, I’ve tried to use “one’s” in place of his or hers where explicable, except for instances in which a) the subjective formation being described is particularly male or female or b) when the prose would be made too awkward by a constant use of “one's”, in which case I use “hers” as the general.
3 This is an odd moment in the text, as the word uomini is used here to describe both the division of “men” into social roles and one of the social roles into which persons is divided, “uomini, donne…”. The question to be asked is the way in which the text envisions the division of men: does it treat this as the primary determinant of the manifold social roles that “follow,” or is this rather dubious claim - dubious in that the division “internal” to men cannot be thought without the other divisions, esp. between men and women - is more a consequence of the bad lexical choices, which would have been better treated as the division of “humans” (gli esseri umani) into social roles, i.e. classes.
4 The word for “performance” used here is prestazione, which is the word used to the describe the “performance” of a borrower in the repayment of a debt. As phrased in the Italian legal code, the prestazione forms the “object of obligation.” As such, a rather sharp connection between the sexual dynamics and the financial status of the domestic sphere as a locus for the circulation of debt.
5 I guard the awkwardness of “consummated” in the original for its sharp double sense.
6 i.e. the double work of a woman who works both a waged job and unwaged “women’s work” of raising the family, cleaning, cooking, affective labor, etc.