Love in the Time of Capitalism
This Sunday, many will enjoy a day with their spouses and partners filled with Hallmark cards, roses and sentimental dates. For some, Valentine’s Day is a day to express deep love and desire. For others, a performance of affection in a charade of a partnership that is no longer emotionally or sexually fulfilling.
February 14, 2016
Image from: Views of a Muscian
Valentine’s Day is a clear example of how society pressures people, especially women, into (straight, cis) romantic relationships. So many people who are single on Valentine’s day spend the day sadly eating ice cream and watching Netflixs, while feeling depressed, lonely and worthless.
The way that Valentine’s Day makes some people feel insignificant is just the tip of the iceberg. There are big problems with love and romance in our society. In capitalism, there are clear limits to all romantic relationships; relationships carry the social and economic constraints placed on them by our sexist, homo and transphobic capitalist society. Our relationships are not just created and maintained by love, but also by economic considerations and social pressures.
Does this mean there is no “real love” under capitalism? I will leave that to the philosophers. It does mean that love under capitalism is not “pure”, but rather, restricted by economic considerations, as well as by social pressure. This is especially true for the working class, for whom material pressures threaten to rip relationships apart due to worry and stress. Ironically, those same material needs often drive people to stay in loveless relationships for the sake of greater economic stability. In order to have a purer love, unsullied by money, we must build a free, socialist society- as the Bolsheviks imagined.
Have you found a boyfriend yet?: Relationship Pressure
Anyone who has spent Valentine’s Day single knows the social pressures to be in a romantic relationship. It’s a pressure felt at every wedding and every family reunion (Do you have a boyfriend yet? Oh… Why not?) but it’s hardly restricted to those spheres. Our media and entertainment go a long way to contributing to the omnipresence of that pressure. An exorbitant amount of music and film is devoted to the theme of chasing and finding true love; we are taught from when we are children that we must find “the one” who completes us. This is particularly true for women, who are taught that they are incomplete without a man (notice the homophobia inherent in these ideas). Certainly the Bechdel test (http://bechdeltest.com/) demonstrates the ways that in most media, women are merely appendages to male protagonists, or centrally preocuppied with men. Marketers know, use, capitalize on, and exacerbate the social pressures to date and marry, especially for women. We are told to buy clothes and makeup and diet in order to be attractive, in order to not be alone, in order to find and keep a man. We are told we can buy our way to happiness, so we keep buying.
Since we know that being in relationships is almost socially compulsory in our society, we know that people do not enter into them or exit them totally freely. For some people, it is better to be with someone rather than being lonely and alone—even if that relationship isn’t a comfortable or happy one. The immense pressure to be in and to stay in relationships makes it clear that love is not freely given; rather, psychological and economic considerations lead us to believe that any relationship, even an unhappy one, is the only avenue to happiness and security.
Limits on our bodies and our desires: Homophobia and transphobia
There are other major constraints on romantic relationships which thrive in our capitalist society. Sexism, homophobia, and transphobia make it difficult for people to explore their gender and sexuality, or to understand what kinds of self-expression and shared affection feel good in their hearts and bodies. Too many people are trapped in monogamous heteosexual relationships, while they want to explore desires for people of the same sex. Some cheat and lie, while others painfully ignore their desires. Either way, their heterosexual partnership becomes a charade to be kept up for appearances.
The constraints created by homo- and transphobia affect men and women who are kept in their respective gender roles by fear of social and familial rejection for being different from the norm and a fear of being or being called gay. The threat of homophobia restricts not only for those who are actually LGBT, but also straight folks who are afraid of deviating from rigid gender norms—men believe they can’t express their emotions and women are made to feel that having kids is compulsory. How can we love freely if we cannot explore who we are and what feels good to us?
Homophobia and transphobia are not just psychological constraints, but often material constraints. Folks do not come out or even explore their gender and sexuality for fear of material repercussions. Particularly, coming out as trans has clear financial implications. It can result in employment discrimination and housing discrimination. The national transgender discrimination survey reports that 26% of trans people lost a job due to bias, 50% were harassed on the job and 20% were evicted or denied housing. These numbers only go up when looking at Black and Latino trans people. Although certainly to a lesser degree, the same fear of unemployment and a lack of housing options is true for those in same sex relationships, particularly depending on where one lives. These financial threats limit how free people feel to explore their wants and their desires. Financial fears take away the ability to be honest with anyone, up to and including themselves.
Clearly, exploring and experimenting with sexuality is an option more available to the wealthy, who have more to fall back on if they do suffer from homo and transphobia. They can move to cities like San Francisco or New York with a lively gay community and can purchase respect from most—if straight peers don’t respect a person’s sexuality, at least the chance remains that they can be impressed by wealth and financial success. For working class and poor LGBT and questioning people, the option of moving to find acceptance is much more difficult. Respect, obviously, can never be bought, when financial need is always cast as failure.
Homo and transphobia are an important element of the “social pressure” discussion since there is immense social pressure for cis people to form heterosexual relationships, especially for poor and working class people who will suffer economic repercussions for coming out. This is a deterrent to free expressions of sexuality and of free love, based on a true exploration of desires.
Trapped in Relationships
While there is immense social pressure to enter into relationships—heterosexual relationships in particular, there is also immense economic pressure to stay in these relationships. Nearly all partnerships include shared money and resources. For workers, this is a necessity, as individually, there is hardly enough money to purchase the basics, much less travel, eat out or engage in other leisure activities. When couples have kids, the economic interdependence becomes even stronger.
This economic interdependence makes it difficult for workers to leave relationships even if they are no longer in love. It’s hard to break up—the psychological costs of heartbreak, of having to reorient oneself to a life without a partner—these tolls may not outweigh the benefit of ending a relationship. This is compounded by the fact that breaking up a relationship means losing the benefit of a two-income household. It means the uncertainty of finding a place to live with affordable rent on a single income, which thanks to gentrification, is more and more difficult in most US cities. Getting out of relationships that are no longer fulfilling should be the right of every person. Too often, it is a right that capitalism denies workers.
The economic ties in relationships are even stronger for women, who make less money for the same work than a man and who are more likely to have custody of children. Along with making less money, women are under pressure to do unpaid housework—cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. Women are even less likely to be able to freely enter and exit relationships based on love and more likely to have to keep economic considerations in mind.
The denial of the right to enter and exit relationships freely has catastrophic consequences for folks attempting to survive domestic violence. Without the guarantee of a job that will pay a living wage, of a home with rent that they can afford, or income that provides for children, many stay in abusive relationships, seeing no way out. Women are far more likely to find themselves the victims of domestic violence and unable to see feasible options for exiting the relationship, both from a psychological standpoint and an economic one.
Limits to our bodies and our desires: Stresses of capitalism and lack of time
A friend once shared that she was having trouble wanting to have sex with her boyfriend because she was so stressed with bills and loans. She is not the only one to have ever felt this way. The everyday stresses of bills and work are a common cause of fights between couples and of increasing distance between people. In fact, stress related to money is the primary cause of divorce. The stresses over money affects our energy, our mood and even our ability and willingness to explore sexual desires. This is especially true for working class and poor people, who have nothing to fall back on and who face the threat of homelessness, of hunger, or of putting their children into those situations. These stresses and pressures affect mood and desire and ultimately destroy relationships.
Furthermore, full days of work are exhausting; traffic and public transit are exhausting. After a full day, it is difficult to find time to connect with a partner. It is difficult to have the emotional or physical energy to do much else than eat and numb one’s mind and body by watching TV. For lots of folks, there isn’t even enough time and energy to cook, resulting in countless meals from from fast-food chains, who capitalize on people’s need for fast and cheap food. The exhaustion of a full days work is a clear deterrent to intimacy.
The everyday life of a worker in America places immense pressure on romantic relationships- limiting time, energy and patience. Not only do the wealthy steal workers’ labor, forcing workers to work long hours for the profit of the boss, but they also indirectly steal our relationships. By taking our time and our energy, they steal our ability to build loving and lasting partnerships.
What does love mean for Socialists?
Love must be free. It must be given freely, without social or economic pressure. In order for love to be free, we must develop an economic basis for this freedom, freeing ourselves from economic considerations. That means free public housing and child care. It means the right to a job that provides us with free time, vacations and wages that allow folks to not only get by, but enjoy life. These jobs must be guaranteed to all people, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
This kind of economic basis seems so distant from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but it is exactly what we need to fight for. In fact, it is exactly what the Bolsheviks attempted to build in the Russian Revolution of 1917 (An excellent book, Women, State and Revolution discusses this issue). To the Bolsheviks, free love and women’s liberation was a central component of a socialist revolution, and something they attempted to guarantee by legalizing abortion and divorce, decriminalizing homosexuality, and attempting to build an infrastructure of jobs and public works around childcare to support such freedom. These attempts failed due to the extreme lack of infrastructure in the early USSR and an ravaged economy after a civil wars and world wars. However, like the Bolsheviks, we understand that in a capitalist society that is more concerned with profit than with people, and where people struggle to make ends meet, love cannot truly be free.
However, simply providing an economic basis for free love is not enough. We must combat the social pressure to be in a cis, heterosexual relationship. We must support and encourage folks to question traditional family structures, build strong friendships that are valued just as strongly as romantic ones and support and encourage folks to experiment and explore gender and sexuality. Yet, we must recognize that the social and economic pressures described in this article will not and cannot go away without providing an economic basis for free love.
Therefore, on this Valentine’s Day, let’s celebrate romantic love, a beautiful feeling. But let’s also commit to fighting for a society in which love is free, making it even more beautiful.