Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Illustration by Zelly Restorick

Love and capitalism

In this, his third article about the changing nature of human relationships (Forever in our hearts, Sept 2014 and Drama of Love and Hate, Dec 2014), Sean O’ Shea considers the impact of capitalism on the way we love, the world of internet dating, the frailty of human bonds and the importance of fellowship.

To keep a man, you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom. I’d hire the other two and take care of the bedroom bit.

                                                      Jerry Hall

Love used to be regarded as a refuge from the more impersonal, calculating, pressurised, efficiency-driven world of work. However, the world of love in its romantic and sexual dimensions is now as much subject to performance pressures as interactions in the workplace, and, like the latter, has become an arena of inflated expectations. Sex is increasingly being reconfigured as a leisure activity, separated from relationship and involves the maximising of pleasure and the minimising of commitment.

The sociologist’s chair : internet dating

Internet dating, which claims to provide extended choice, excitement and the assurance of finding that ‘special person’ is, according to the sociologist, Claude Kaufmann (Love Online, 2012), a judgemental cattle market often characterised by cynicism, detachment and short-term engagements. The search for ‘perfect partners’ is big business and the use of pseudo-scientific compatibility grids and profiling offer the promise of prompt fulfilment of our dreams and desires. It is a world reportedly dominated by fantasy and duplicity, where youth, health and beauty are at a premium. And Stuart Jeffries, writing in The Guardian in February 2012, in an article entitled ‘Is online dating destroying love?’ states that ‘We are doomed to be unsatisfied creatures, whose desires are fulfilled only momentarily, before we go on the hunt for new objects to scratch new itches.’


Illustration by Zelly Restorick

In his book, Liquid Love: on the Frailty of Human Bonds (2003), Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, argues that an increasing number of people feel unable to commit to relationships, have nomadic lifestyles and diminishing genuine attachments.  This has lead to what some commentators have referred to as a ‘crisis in intimacy’.  With the increase of individualism, the collapse of traditional bonds, increased mobility and intensification of financial pressures, it is argued that involuntary solitude has become endemic and people are thrown back on their own resources more than ever before.

The city landscape in particular is often depicted as a plurality of isolations, in which millions living in close proximity, don’t know their immediate neighbours and, in spite of having many virtual ‘friends’ on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, are increasingly living within solitary techno-bubbles. The resultant emotional and sensual disconnection affects not only the elderly, but also other age groups. For example, ChildLine now cites loneliness as one of the main problems reported to them by young people. Yet this remains a taboo subject and is often viewed as a personal inadequacy or pathology, rather than a culturally induced privation.

These social commentaries and observations might appear to some as being unduly pessimistic. Nonetheless, they do highlight discernible trends in contemporary culture that are not conducive to human wellbeing, but rather lead to shallowness in social relations, immersion in a simulated reality, frenzied consumerism and an increasing reliance on professional services for care, support and self-maintenance.


Illustration by Zelly Restorick

Fellowship is life : brotherly love

Amongst the varying forms of love, the importance of fellowship or brotherly love has been emphasised in the religious, philosophical and literary traditions of both the East and the West. In his novel, A Dream of John Ball (1888) about the English peasants’ revolt of 1381, William Morris states that ‘fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death…’  Furthermore, the realisation that we are fundamentally relational beings focuses attention on the importance of the social environment as a means for the promotion of human development and solidarity.

How such an enabling environment might be created and maintained, however, has been a perennial topic of political debate and William Morris’s agrarian paradigm described in his novel News from Nowhere (1890) might not nowadays win general approval, particularly with regard to his views on the role of women. In the novel, the sexual division of labour remained intact and though women were not confined to domestic labour, the range of work they undertook was narrower than that of men. Nonetheless, men no longer had opportunity to tyrannise over women. Moreover, his advocacy of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, the reduction of labour to a minimum and the abolition of the division between art, life and work, might resonate more favourably to some modern ears.

As to romance, two of the novel’s main characters, Dick and Clara, were married with children when Clara fell in love with someone else. However, they had a deep bond of comradeship which endured. Furthermore, the reader was reminded that covenants between people in matters of love were personally chosen, but not institutionalised: the state and judiciary did not exist in Nowhere.

In contemporary times, both authoritarian socialism and modern  capitalism, in spite of their differential success in increasing material wellbeing, have failed to fully realize the normative ideals of freedom, equality and social justice; nor  have they  led to universal human flourishing or solidarity.  Moreover, free-market fundamentalism with its associated negative version of freedom (i.e. freedom to pursue private interests with minimal restraints and regard to the common good), when taken to its logical conclusion seems to result in the undermining of social cohesion, growing inequality, planetary despoliation and rule by powerful elites.

We are enjoined to be wary of others, particularly strangers. The use of cautionary phrases such as ‘get real’, ‘toughen up’, and ‘this place is full of sharks’ (Alan Sugar, The Apprentice 2014) testify to a growing mistrust.  And this has been compounded in recent years by a broader crisis of confidence in our major institutions.

The marketing character

In the market society, the primary compulsion to which people are subject is to sell their labour and themselves. This leads to the development of a particular orientation of selfhood, which the German American sociologist and psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, called the ‘marketing character’. People experience themselves as commodities and success, both in love and in work, is a matter of how well they can sell, package and advertise themselves. Individuals tend to become social chameleons and become accustomed to adjusting their opinions and self-presentations to whatever the context requires.

Marx, writing towards the end of the first industrial revolution, anticipated that capitalism would destroy human bonds, undermine communities, substitute egoism for reciprocity and reduce all human relations to the ‘cash nexus’. He advocated a ‘humane economy’, in which persons not markets would be free. Furthermore, he drew a distinction between contrasting conceptions of wealth. The world can be seen as comprising possessions and potential possessions and other people may be conceived as objects to be controlled, exploited, used and discarded when they are perceived as having lost their glamour, agreeability or utility. Marx proposed an alternative humanistic conception of wealth i.e. wealth as richness in the quality, scope and continuity of human relations rather than property. (Grundrisse: K. Marx Collected Works, D. McLellan, 1971)

Almost a century later, in his book The Sane Society 1955, Erich Fromm cites how people in mass society may seek refuge from their sense of isolation through automaton conformity, authoritarianism and reliance on technical and plutocratic elites, strategies he describes as ‘escapes from freedom’. He envisaged an alternative society, communitarian socialism in which people would draw on the benefits of modern technology, but not be determined by it, where everyone would be responsible for everyone else, where resources would be shared – and where people would live in ecologically sustainable communities of sufficient scale to facilitate mutual aid, promote a spirit of fellowship and maximise participation in decision making. As in William Morris’s Nowhere, the socialisation of the means of production, both material and cultural, would be a prerequisite for the development of ‘the sane society’.

Straws in the wind : a fellowship of compassion

These ideas are perhaps even more relevant today than they were half a century ago, but in the context of the dominant political ‘realism’, they may be regarded by many as hopelessly utopian. Market forces tend to be proclaimed triumphant in both East and West, and politics is frequently reduced to a contest between different parties in their claims to better manage a depersonalised economy.

Nonetheless, while not resolving the inherent paradoxes and dilemmas that may arise in our encounter with love, hate and other existential issues, the alternative social arrangements sketched above might afford a better context for the realisation of social justice and the promotion of a fellowship of compassion, thus making our short sojourn on the planet less alienated and precarious.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

John 3:8

SOS February 2015

Posted 18:52 Monday, Feb 2, 2015 In: SOS

Also in: SOS

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