Against Adult Supremacy: The Anti-Capitalist Case for Child Liberation
by Matt Broomfield
20 February 2018
Two British women die weekly as a result of domestic violence. Activists rightly situate their deaths in the context of neoliberal austerity. But where are the activists making anti-capitalist arguments on behalf of the three British children who die weekly as a result of domestic abuse or neglect?
The zine anthology “No! Against Adult Supremacy” is a primal scream, expressing outrage at the maltreatment of children by their parents, in schools like prisons, in prisons themselves.
At times, Supremacy slips into Bart Simpson fantasies of a world where the kids roam free, unconstrained. Some contributors are more concerned with “curfew laws”, with “r-rated movies and ear piercings”, with anarchist wish-fulfilment about “rediscovering the child within”, than with tangible economic disenfranchisement.
For restrictions on children’s freedom, like direct violence done by abusive parents, are only the most obvious ways in which our society systematically dehumanises children. Globally, children are twice as likely as adults to live in extreme poverty. Across Europe, they suffered most under austerity. In the UK, 30% of children live in relative poverty, against 16.8% of adults.
These figures are too often cast in liberal, humanitarian terms, rather than as aspects of class struggle. Children’s impoverishment is not simply an addendum to the impoverishment of the adult guardians who have been arbitrarily assigned absolute power over their lives.
Rather, as Toby Rollo writes in Supremacy, “the child/human binary is the model… upon which modes of subjugation are founded”. Children are exposed to the harshest excesses of capitalist crisis – and young people blamed for its failures – even as they are forced into unwaged labour, in school and home, with the overriding aim of reinforcing its tottering structure.
For millennia, societies have justified oppression of proletarianised subjects by figuring them as weaklings who must be protected.
Disabled people, people of colour and the broad proletariat are all infantilised in public discourse: the “irresponsible” working-class mother, the “ungrateful” and “lazy” benefits-scrounger. In Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone describes the “ex-child and still oppressed child-woman”.
The black man has long been “boy”, reckless, lacking self-control, disenfranchised by trumped-up ‘crimes’ committed in his youth, fated to be violently infantilised in prison or brought to heel with the short sharp shock of a bullet. The precarious late-capitalist labourer is literally in nappies.
Only the rich are grown-ups. Workers must be good little boys and girls forever. To be independent is to be adult, is to control the means: to be dependent on society or family is to be weak, infantile, a burden.
In Supremacy, Samantha Godwin frames the parent-child relationship as an owner-property relation: parents may discipline, raise and indoctrinate their child as they will within the bounds of the law, but another adult may not.
It’s a deliberately provocative simplification – as Godwin rightly notes, “parents… do not tend to conceptualise children literally as property… most would likely find terming them as such objectionable.” Moreover, many parents go without to provide for their children, uniting them in struggle even as the working-class child is conditioned to powerlessness.
Under capitalism, the beleaguered grown-up knows, non-conformity leads to penury. From “little girls are seen not heard” through “little boys don’t wear dresses” to “you’ll never get a job if you carry on like that”, discipline is indistinguishable from well-meaning concerns, hegemony intruding violently into the playroom in the guise of compassion. Such is the toxicity of the nuclear family’s “authoritarian cell”.
Yet this condition of parental domination over the child, in a locked-in unit of “love” from which only assimilation offers escape, is not universal. As Bourdieu observes, the nuclear family is petit-bourgeois, retaining and reproducing personal economic autonomy within a semi-detached demesne.
The “autonomy” of working-class parents to control their children’s lives is trampled over by capital. African-American youths are five times as likely as their white compatriots to be imprisoned. From aggressive military marketing campaigns targeting working-class kids, to Canadian “residential schools” which forcibly seized indigenous children and placed them into the grossly abusive care of the state, Supremacy highlights myriad ways in which capital reminds working-class parents their children are only theirs on a temporary loan.
In middle-class Western homes, children are raised on a tight, pocket-moneyed leash to inculcate them into a life of middle-management or clerical work. In proletarianised homes throughout the manufacturing south, parents lose their property-rights over their child as both jump to the same foreman’s whistle.
We must smash the cell of the nuclear family not only to free those trapped within, but to create new structures incorporating those always-already trapped outside.
The breakfast clubs, clinics and vast range of survival and social programmes offered by the Black Panthers model one radical alternative. The inauguration of similar programmes on a mass, socially-funded basis would be a step toward the withering-away of the nuclear family.
It should be normal for children to live in shared housing with peers and adult mentors, walking away from the parental “home” whenever they choose. (The vast majority of child abusers are parents, and vulnerable children would be far safer in such a society than they are now.)
Ruthie Gilmore’s words on prison abolition apply equally to the nuclear family: “abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” We must demand not child-care programmes, but spaces of mutual solidarity where children and adults can participate equally.
Schools, Selma James writes in Supremacy, are “institutions organised by capital to achieve its purpose through and against the child”. Though “their labour appears to be learning for their own benefit”, children are imprisoned and arbitrarily punished unless they engage in involuntary self-improvement, with the endpoint of entering the labour-market in capital’s service.
“By looking at children as investments, we can see where the product of children’s labor is stored: in the machine-self, in their human capital,” Malcolm Harris argues in 2017’s Kids These Days. We must demand pay for the years’ labour preceding “work” in the strict sense, for every hour spent learning from the cradle up.
Concomitantly, we must resist education’s reduction to a matter of “employable skills”. (If anything, a National Art Service should likewise pay artists an unconditional wage.) A paid-schooling model would free those “indentured” to dependent or impoverished families to study on whatever timescale they chose. As Ursula K LeGuin writes, “The creative adult is the child who survived.”
Yet many contributors to Supremacy prefer an anarchistic politics of retreat, arguing for “anti-schooling” programmes – following the example of bourgeoisie parents in turning their backs on state schools. Paolo Freire’s seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed provides a more positive alternative.
Following Eric Fromm, Freire argues that to exist or be under capitalism we must possess, or have. Our existence is inherently destructive. Freire sees this relation entrenched in classrooms where we acquire static knowledge and “bank” it in the brain. Rather, he argues for “dialogic” learning, as educator and educatee strike out together from the basis of mutually-created resources toward an unknown goal.
Social programmes like those outlined above thus take on a further – revolutionary –significance. They allow children to develop consciousness in dialogic relation to other people, rather than as glorified pets.
For an actually-existing model, we might tentatively look to Rojava. Reporting from the democratic-confederalist region, Janet Biehl describes a school system where exams “don’t measure knowledge – they’re “more like reminders, like dialogues””, where “a teacher who is criticized has to talk out the issue with the student until they both feel they understand each other.”
Programmes at Rojavan higher-education institutes Biehl visited end in “platform” discussions, as students discuss how their knowledge will contribute to the construction of democratic confederalism. Whether students join a militia or social council is not important: difficulties and complexities on the ground notwithstanding, what is important is that dialogic growth is seen as inherent to society, and education as a collective movement toward a collective end.
Freire argues oppressors allow the oppressed to engage in debate – a “farce of paternalistic manipulation” – but baulk at actual, dialogic learning. This is why “snowflake” students are so vilified by the reactionary press when no-platforming speakers. They dare to operate outside the circumscribed “marketplace of ideas”, asking why a given debate is taking place rather than engaging in an impotent back-and-forth of “banked” knowledge.
This is what society lacks when it excludes children – their curiosity, their questioning of terms. Childishness is curiosity, openness to the new, willingness to admit we do not know. These qualities, socially coded as weakness, are profoundly revolutionary.
The nuclear family and the academy must burst open into the public sphere, seizing it back from capital as a site of dialogic exchange. Against these oppressive structures we need childlike openness, curiosity and optimism. We need children’s ideas – and their ridicule of ours.
Children, Bakunin writes, “are neither the property of their parents nor even the world: they belong only to their own future freedom.” But children do not belong to themselves: no-one should. Rather, they should belong to the commons and the commons to them, in mutually beneficial relation. We must say not only no! to adult supremacy, but yes! to the society of the child.
‘NO! Against Adult Supremacy’ is a collection of writing on youth liberation, originally published online by Stinney Distro. A new anthology published by Dog Section Press and Active Distribution draws together all 20 issues of the NO! zine series into one print edition. It is available here for £7.