By: Kate Doyle Griffiths and Gus Breslauer
“Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (FSN)” was released by Verso on May 7th, and there is no doubt that it is already a provocation to Marxists and feminists and to the Marxist-feminist canon. An opening book-length salvo in what will surely prove to be a defining 21st century debate in the tradition of intense feminist theory wars, FSN introduces a fully-automated, utopian, but politically immediate Marxist transfeminism, taking up the seemingly inhospitable terrain of gestation and biological reproduction as a center of gravity and speculative launching pad. The main idea, elaborated elegantly throughout the book is: “In order to become politically acceptable and ethically tenable, surrogacy must change beyond recognition—but we need more surrogacy, not less!”
Sophie Lewis, a sophisticated skeptic, is keenly aware of her critics as they put forward her bold positions. The preemption pays off; they are thorough, leaving no stone unturned, few questions unasked, and moves from these toward, a world of revolutionary possibilities. At the outset, Lewis makes no attempt to defend actual existing commercial gestational surrogacy, as it is, for her part and parcel of the actually existing labor processes tout court. Lewis sees in surrogacy both the horrors of capitalist production and the horizon of a new world, the subjects of a new history, and the fighters of a new revolution, reprising and reinventing Marx’s classic conception of working class gravediggers, now as life-givers.
In her introductory framing, Lewis appears discontent and ruthlessly critical of nearly everything in all the right ways – feminism to this point has too often been tragically gyno-centric and race-blind (at best, and transphobic, bourgeois, elite and exclusionary – at worst eugenicist and essentializing). For Lewis, surrogacy has been a site of capitalist production in all its destructiveness, and efforts to regulate inevitably appear as criminalization, coming in the form of attacks on the surrogates, vulnerable workers at the bottom of a global supply chain. Utterly unsatisfied with this state of things, Lewis deploys a Marxist analysis to reveal a web of contradictions. Surrogacy, when de-mystified, gives us a glimpse beyond this world and a way forward. A world where gestators, mothers, children, families, caregivers and surrogates, are categories distinct and separate from each other, and one where conflict and contradiction between these roles is made explicit, and so could be politicized, negotiated, delinked and made simultaneously into potential components of social self realization through anti-romantic scrutiny and pragmatic rearrangement.
The meat of the book begins with a sobering analysis of the 2017 TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Lewis explains in detail how the feminism which flows from the (rightful) fear of the world envisioned by the series is ineluctably white and liberal. It becomes apparent that the “handmaidens” in “The Handmaid’s Tale” face a brutality of forced surrogacy parallel to enslaved and segregated black/African people have faced on this continent for hundreds of years, in a dystopian futuristic universe that aggressively represses and denies this concrete historical source material in a classically Freudian sense. Lewis invokes Angela Davis and other black Marxists and socialist feminist theorists to insist that surrogacy is not a new invention, but a foundational site of reproduction which responds to the dynamic of materialist, historic forces, which connect the history of chattel slavery, settlerism and the capitalist present. Surrogacy is not now and has never been a singular of homogenous experience but is in all these moments precisely a site of differentiation, extraction, control and the production of ideology of race, gender, work, love, commerce, care and (in)justice.
If surrogacy is nothing new, neither are the activist and regulatory efforts to end, curtail control and morally locate the practice. The second chapter of the book is a robust history and careful refutation of anti-surrogacy movements, and examines the ways in which criminalization impacts surrogates detailing draconian and punitive methods of eradication and “abolition” as opponents of our era would have it. Anti-surrogacy feminists have rationales and an essentialist view of womanhood which compliment and often mutually reinforce the premises and conclusions of anti-prostitution feminists and transphobic feminists. Lewis demonstrates not only the ideological congruence of these positions but their practical political overlap, under the banner of “radical feminism” she makes a convincing case that this small but influential cadre is neither. Lewis documents and historicizes the social basis of this reactionary anti-feminist “feminist” feminist; pointing out that anti-surrogacy activists are often white and not shy about or seemingly ashamed of cultivating alliances and relationships with the hard right and institutional social conservatives. Through this multiplier effect, radical feminists are able to punch above their tiny social weight in pursuing policies that outlaw surrogacy along with those that further isolate and criminalize sex workers, and strenuous objection to legal reforms which will more fully recognize trans people in legal gendered identities that differ from those assigned at birth. Lewis astutely underlines the stark degree to which this policy and ideological agenda disproportionately impacts working class black people and other exploited, marginalized and oppressed people along the lines not only of gender and sexuality, but race, nationality, citizenship, language and relationship to the means of production.
Throughout the book, Lewis articulates clearly the outlines of an emerging Marxist transfeminism – for this reason even above its specific content and focus, it is an essential reading for all radical, communist and socialist queer people. One hopes and foresees it’s the first in a wave of new theoretical interventions designed to catch up to and theorize the debates and practice of a new wave of queer and trans marxist, feminist, activists and organization. By de-bunking anti-trans politics as a point of departure and ultimate conclusion, Lewis adroitly identifies, dissects and transcends reactionary feminisms and radical materialist accounts which extend well beyond radical feminism and often in practice oppose TERFism, and the criminalization of sex work and surrogacy. To do so, she expands on her previous investigations of “bad materialisms,” taking down a range of sex and gender essentialisms, directly confronting liberal, conservative and even radical “common sense” that reinscribe trans-exclusivity and conceptually weak appeals to authority that err in their faith-based reliance on vulgar empiricism, authoritative and authoritarian medicalism, and knee-jerk luddite, moralistic reactions. In its place, Lewis gives us a politics not just inclusive of trans people, but a transfeminism of a cyborg nature that goes well beyond her inspiration in Harraway, one inclusive of the transcendental potential of human mastery biology and technology in social context, while indicating the ways in which this vision sharply diverges from bourgeois ideology in all its liberal, conservative, faux-feminist and even left-populist forms.
To explicate how modern surrogacy functions as an industry, and its role in the larger political economy of capitalist reproduction, social reproduction and direct production, Lewis then takes a close ethnographic lens on a clinic in Gujarat, India. Here they work out their account of surrogacy as labor in a Marxist sense. Like all capitalist metabolism between humanity and nature, labor in this society is turned against us through the mode of production, and gestational labor is no different. Lewis brilliantly explains how gestational labor like all labor under capitalism is deformed by its organization toward exchange rather than use value, while complicating the question of use value itself with respect to pregnancy as service work.
Lewis mercilessly dissects the explanatory framework of surrogacy capitalist Dr. Nayna Patel; this section will drive from your brain any notion that Patel’s (or any surrogacy boss’s) interests could ever be aligned with that of the surrogates she exploits, in case you had any doubts. Lewis is never flippant or unfair, they gives everyone a chance, but they do the job of clarifying the class line and divergent experience and consciousness that necessarily exists between worker and boss. Lewis demonstrates convincingly that Dr. Patel’s ideology and class interests are strikingly similar to those of the anti-surrogates and anti-natalists who stridently oppose Patel’s life’s work.
Here Lewis takes up directly the question of value and value production in the surrogacy industry, treading simultaneously into the murk of longstanding Marxist feminist debate, and the hair-trigger moral outrage inspired by public debate about surrogacy.
The fundamental question here is what is being produced as a commodity and what the value of work is, in both a Marxist and in a more general strategic sense; Patel and her critics both agree that the “product” of surrogacy is a human child, as repellant as the idea the concept commodified human individuals may be to a society that formally rejects the legacies of chattel slavery, a distaste shared by liberals like Patel and the “radical” conservatives confronting her in “feminist” moral/rhetorical terms and technocratic state regulatory policy. Dr. Patel, responds by describing “value added” rather than by rejecting the terms of the criticism—in her view, she sells “more than” a baby, she sells the unique boldly qualities of Indian surrogates, a boutique and cosmopolitan baby-making experience to enhance, narrativize and make specific the process of baby-purchase, an ideology of scientific uber-parenting that “explains” and makes socially real, the use-value of her product.
Lewis positions herself as drawing out the shared agreement of baby-as-commodity between idealist adversaries and making the economism of the trade in babies explicit. Lewis, in contrast distinguishes herself as recognizing the classical distinction Marxists make between value-producing work-for-profit and the same work in non-value producing spheres; for her the pregnancy itself produces the value. But she questions the strategic “value” of this distinction for the purpose of organizing gestational laborers of both kinds, and as a focus of Marxist and communist attention to surrogacy and gestational labor. The distinction is deliberately muddied in her controversial invocation of the “destruction” of fetal life and the product of pregnancy as a form of sabotage and resistance inherent in the nature of the work.
This analysis aligns itself politically with the recently and readily revived intervention of Italian feminists of the 1970s and their American interlocutors—then the insistence, contra more classical Marxist framing, was that unwaged housework produced unseen unaccounted and neglected “value” precisely through the conversion of feeding clothing bathing and birthing into workers ready and able to be exploited on the market. For Lewis, gestational labor fits this mold though she doesn’t insist on this dubious reworking of “value” to make her point about political import and strategic focus—irrespective of whether stipends, pregnancy support and procurement fees constitute a wage, the uterine labor of protection, nurturance and exchange at the level of molecule is politically significant in precisely this way: it produces a person, a capitalist subject ready for raising. This is the work before the work, ever before the moment when breakfasts, diaper changes, lunches, dinners, baths, scolding, looking after, educating and cleaning up dominates the 18-22 years of rearing required for a functional, human, subject of capital’s domination.
The correct focus on the importance of this work, irrespective of its specific role in profit-making connects modern gestators to those of the past, whose resistance was often rooted in refusal and the kind of destruction she provides. But it also threatens to downplay a potentially important strategic element inscribed in the classical marixist distinction; to describe what’s distinct about paid surrogacy, what’s different now and it to link this labor to the widespread growth of services of all kinds in the global economy, and its links to highly specific and stratified divisions in the working class tightly bound to the intensification of a technocratic and morbidly scientific trend in the ideology of ruling class self-reproduction. How might the particular place of value-producing pregnancy be source of power for all gestators? Or for all those engaged in reproduction and social reproduction, for pay and otherwise? Its possibly more than we can ask from a tight and jam-packed text that already calls to the carpet major lacuna in the Marxist cannon of theory and praxis.
A classical conception of value here could have been even more illuminating; in capitalism, it is not the worker but her labor-power flogged on the open market; paid surrogates and their managers are not selling babies at all, and not even the bodies of the surrogates, except in-as-much as all wage labor offloads injury and age into a workers own depreciation and tendency to individually, increasingly, fall short of the abstract standard (always intensifying through the innovations of new laborers meeting the pressures of profit and innovation passed on to them from the exigencies of capitalist competition).
While the historical legacies of connection between this modern capitalist form of surrogacy and its antecedents are compelling and significant in terms of how workers bosses and customers understand their own relationships and for how we should understand them, the flaw of “wages for housework” style rewriting of value mars Lewis analysis as it did its own intervention in to Marxist accounts of social reproduction half a century ago in seeking to revise the definition of surplus value production, this school of thought aimed to center unwaged reproductive work as politically central to any transformation or revolution beyond capitalism, on par with the political and theoretical centrality of wage labor at the point of production in factories and the like. In the process, it obscures and discounts the deeply significant transformation of unwaged work into waged service work, and perhaps ironically over-assumes the unique political significance of value production itself–missing the distinct but crucial import of reproductive labor, waged or unwaged, in the organization of the working class in-it-self, and its potential and actual role in crystalizing collective forms of resistant working class consciousness, and its related centrality to the capacity of the class to self-organize and to turn modes of survival into methods of resistance.
For Lewis, it means there is still some work to be done in terms of being able to fully articulate the significance of novel forms of surrogacy as a now-collective industry in womb-work , the real, material and new existence of a collective womb; her novel and compelling argument is itself still an infant of a new and necessary turn in marist feminism, demanding the hard work from all of us to contribute to its upbringing and full development. The promising, young argument cannot yet access the import of waged reproductive labor in the terms that we’ve lately seen and increasingly understood the political significance of the dual power of waged socially reproductive labor (not just that of maids particularly in hotels, but that of teachers and nurses)to simultaneously activate and organize a broader class consciousness, but also to often, at the same time, directly disrupt profit-making through strikes in the for-profit sectors of these industries. But we have no doubt of its useful direction along these lines.
Instead of taking on the shared understanding of surrogacy capitalists and their opponents (that surrogacy enterprises are selling babies rather than gestational labor-power and accumulating its concomminent surplus) in a more explicit and neutral pragmatic register, it would have been thrilling to see Lewis flip the script of agreement here and make a stronger case for her clear argument that surrogacy can and will play the role of grave-digger and creatively destructive force with respect to capitalist relations of child-bearing, rearing, socialization and flexible family organization.
Nevertheless, Lewis commitment to a fully communist, abolitionist future and faith in the transformative power of conscious surrogacy in motivating and potentiating that possible future shines through, ultimately.
From her account of value and surrogacy as labor, Lewis moves on to breakdown the components of the capitalist family, and categories we associate with it, such as kinship and motherhood. Through Lewis’ sharp and persuasive account, it becomes undeniable just how pervasive and structurally central the family really is to capitalist political economy. Here, Lewis resembles a latter day, queer and more explicitly feminist Engels, in contrast to the hollow liberal feminism of capitalist proponents of surrogacy who, it seems, avoid systemic analysis and visionary horizons at all costs. Dr. Patel’s feminism, like that of so many other capitalist hucksters, is cheerily and antiseptically oriented toward shoring up the increasingly crisis-prone and unstable capitalist family with surrogacy. Lewis, by contrast, sees in surrogacy and surrogates a vehicle for the illumination, abolition and transcendence of the capitalist family, identifying the family itself as an institution and source of resilience for the self-reproduction of a profitable capitalist political economy. Here, Lewis’ feminism is simply and compellingly the revolutionism of the communist manifesto; like Marx and Engels, they “plead guilty” to the hope of liberating the working class from unachievable, and to Lewis undesirable, bourgeois “standards,” to the goal of liberating women from men, and everyone from gender binarism. Most radically, they revive the call of the manifesto to liberate children, explicitly, from their parents.
In so doing, Lewis puts forward a novel and specific update to the revolutionary spirit of the manifesto; that we, communists, must advance “incentives to practice real surrogacy, more surrogacy: more mutual-aid. We need ways of counteracting the exclusivity and supremacy of “biological” parents in children’s lives; experiments in communizing family-support infrastructures, lifestyles that discourage competitiveness and multiply non-genetic investments in the well-being of generations”  The book is a brilliant and biting benchmark in the development of a new new politic, theory and critical account of queer social reproduction against the reproduction of capitalism as such, through its most intimate relations and their evolving commodification. That is to say, its a vision of a possible future, read against but also through the insurgent power of gender and the family as we know it, turned against itself, and toward a horizon of universal protection, exchange, development, nurturance and care. Its an imaginary that elevates curiosity about assuredness, consent and excitement over duty and dully compulsion, relation and mutuality over formulas of precise and static distributive equity of the sort that could never practically apply to the inescapable necessity of and for humans to grow and raise one another.
FSN is a needed, urgent and welcome manifesto and meditation on species-being in context, in practice and the future. Its release has already revealed the degree to which Lewis ideas are deeply challenging to sympathetic readers and critics alike; their audience and antagonists have particularly been pushed to reconsider the family through their unflinching advocacy of its abolition. For many, this pronouncement, even if taken idedically from Marx, provokes resistance. Families, whether thick through the blood of embattled experience (as in queer ‘chosen’ families and other non-natal formations, or tied through the water of amniotic association, genetic or otherwise, represent the last line of solidarity, affinity, affection, and survival for all of us; though Marx said it about religion, it’s even more apt to describe capitalist families (at least in our imagination of them) as the “heart of a heartless world,” a respite seemingly outside the violence of competition and commodification.
But Lewis reveals families, through their primary role in highly marketized and coercive reproduction as an ideological quicksand of competing interests, injuries and trauma which reproduce on a large scale the dynamics of a classic abusive cycle– offering the social warmth of a symbolic womb as the only possible solution to the scars endured not only in the cold cruel world of the market but those earned within the family system itself. Further, they help illuminate, in they way Marx once did for politics and economy, the counterintuitive unity of the market and the family, giving us a fine-grained account of the processes that are often simply bracketed as “subsumption” and abstractly debated in terms of fullness or partiality, in ways that make it impossible to see the mutual constitution and functionality of the relation between any sense of full and/or partial subsumption. The family feels at once natural and precarious, soothing and a site of turmoil. Lewis helps explain the role of these contradictions in the reproduction of capitalism, and their potential as exploitable weaknesses. And she does it in very concrete, practical and terms that simultaneously mobilize familiar experiences and exotic accounts. What might we make of a contest between the rights of the many parties with an “interest” in one baby, produced by surrogacy; the capitalist firms across continents, the commissioning parent(s), the potential donors, the surrogate and the child herself? But then is that kind of contest so alien to the presumed obviousness of natal relations, development, inheritance and filial obligation?
Sophie Lewis’ answer to their own challenge is epistemic and methodological and is the source of the discomfort the text inspires. Lewis asks us to radically and profoundly denaturalize all that we believe we know about pregnancy, yes, but also love, care and custodial relations. Surrogacy is the perfect site for this inquiry if it may have first seemed an awkward fit for a committed Marxist transfeminist beachhead.
What, they make us ask, if surrogacy is the rule and not the exception? What does surrogacy look like when we begin to think of all of us as potential or even active surrogates in the present, and gestation as a process beyond the atomized baby-making performed by the bearers of wombs, but that of involving all of the parties above and even more, absent capitalist imperative to profit?
In the end and as a speculative answer to the questions they raise, Lewis explores the subversive potential of surrogates, and puts forward a vision of what their struggle can look like, from forms of sabotage to organized forms of care. They are at their most scholarly when invoking the histories gathered by black feminists and queer thinkers, and the affinities and overlaps between the traditions of theorizing historicizing criticizing and rethinking the family. They draw particularly on those featured in “Revolutionary Mothering”, and by uncovering of a history that is resistant to the white colonial family structure. Here, old forms of resistance are made new and newly relevant, collective and self-aware in ways appropriate to the transformation in surrogacy that then historicizes the text.
Lewis provides a strong vision for what “full surrogacy” can look like and does a fine job of compelling us to think beyond the concrete material and theoretical provocations they provide. Lewis demonstrates that the questions we’re left with must be shared and overcome together. What does it mean to turn surrogacy, which they cast as already queer, against the reproduction of stratification, profit and alienation? 
The final chapter looks beyond surrogacy, to the gestation of human life as such. Lewis envisions a biotechnological macrocosm, where water’s centrality to life is maximized through amniotechnics. What reason, they implore is to consider, could we have to fear a future where reproductive technology is expanded and maximized, in the context of overcoming explorative and coercive relations of care? What might come of rethinking and expanding definitions of gestate and gestator? They demonstrate that the impossible has long since come to pass in the realm of gestation, technology and flexible recombination of biological and social relations: the challenge they offer is how we may use these towards the ends of full human emancipation.
Overall, we can not recommend this book enough, and we recommend it for everyone, not just those who might see themselves as potential surrogates or otherwise find the subject personally relevant. Lewis has given us a text in which we are all relevant, and all potential participants in the process of surrogacy as human collective self-emancipation and full development.
There is also much to be said of the rigorous scholarship on display. The book is remarkably dense with information, if one is not familiar with surrogacy, social reproduction, Marxism or Feminism, the background reading that informs the text may be overwhelming, with every page offering a school of thought or bibliography to investigate. In that way it’s a challenging text, but one that invites deeper reading against any tendency to assert closed certitude or intimidating authority. Lewis shows their work and reveals the source code and structure of the deeply immersed, sophisticated treasure chest of knowledge they helpfully packaged for us here. This is one text to possibly take on as a group, in an attempt to try to socialize the digestion (or perhaps gestation!) of the ideas amongst comrades and collectives in favor of formative futures.
Gus Breslauer is a gay communist from Houston, Texas. He is a writer, musician, streamer, and organizer. He is particularly interested in the relationship of shame to gay politics, and the impact of trauma based pathology in social functioning. He is a member of Space City Socialists, Houston Tenants Union and Bayou Action Street Health.
Kate Doyle Griffiths is a writer anthropologist and teacher based in Brooklyn. They are a member of Red Bloom and a delegate to the Marxist Center.