Gender & Sexuality


Love in the Time of Capitalism

How is love limited by the material and ideological conditions of capitalism?

February 15, 2018

Image: Mélancolie by Albert Gyorgy

Anyone who has spent Valentine’s Day single knows the social pressure to be in a romantic relationship. You can hardly go anywhere without seeing chocolate hearts, flowers, and gushy cards that proclaim undying love. In the first couple of years into a relationship, celebrating Valentine’s Day can be cute, even if you know that it’s a farce of a holiday meant to make massive profits for capitalists. Others find that V-Day means putting on a performance of affection in partnerships that are no longer emotionally or sexually fulfilling. Finally, for some, the day is terribly depressing, lonely, and isolating — convincing them they are unloveable and have been left behind by friends who all seem to have found “the one.” There is already, on every other day of the year, immense social, cultural, and economic pressure to be partnered, and this pressure is only amplified on the 14th of February.

The expectation that everyone must find a partner is often most acute at family events and other people’s weddings: “Do you have a boyfriend yet? Really? No one?” But it’s hardly restricted to those social spheres. On taxes, the census, and medical forms, you are asked: single or married? Those who are married get tax breaks. Those who are single get unending social disapproval.

Whether single or in an unhappy relationship, many feel like it’s our fault if we are lonely or unfulfilled. But if 70’s feminists taught us anything, it’s that the personal is political. There is something systemic going on. The truth is that whether one is single or in a relationship, capitalism leaves a foul imprint on romantic possibilities; love in the time of capitalism carries serious social and economic constraints. Today, love is not “pure” or “free” but shackled by a system of misery, oppression, and exploitation.

Class Aims of Love

The connection between love, marriage, and sex is not an immutable part of society; love has a history and has not always been understood in the same way. The ruling class has always used love to further its own aims, and capitalism is no different. Although we can feel many different kinds of love for many different people, romantic love expressed via marriage is privileged by social institutions. The Bolshevik revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai took up this issue a century ago, arguing, “Bourgeois society was built on the principles of individualism and competition and has no place for friendship as a moral factor. Friendship does not help in any way, and may hinder the achievement of class aims.”

And what are these “class aims”? They are competition above solidarity, family above community, and nationalism above internationalism. They are the extraction of unpaid labor in the form of child care, cleaning, and cooking — all typically provided by women, who are expected to demonstrate their love by working for free. For working-class women, this unpaid labor is a second shift — one that starts at home after they leave their jobs. For the wealthy, much of this unpaid labor is done by underpaid Black and immigrant women.

Love is an ideological tool that serves to divide us and pit us against each other. Most parents work hard to give their kids a better life, not for personal fulfillment and not for the betterment of society. It’s no wonder love, marriage, and two-person romantic couplings are so important to capitalism.

Love and marriage is as much an economic arrangement as a romantic one. It’s about sharing bank statements, taxes, mortgages, and loans, as much as it is about shared affection, care, and companionship. For the capitalist class, it’s about passing down property. For the working class, it’s the safety net the government refuses to provide. This is evident when both Republican and Democratic politicians blame poverty on the lack of strong family units, all but arguing for people to stay together for the economic functions of family, not love or companionship.

At the same time, there are mechanisms that cover up the economic functions of love and marriage. There is a mass marketing strategy meant to lead us to believe that any monogamous relationship, even a dysfunctional one, is the only avenue to happiness and security. Marketers know how to use, capitalize on, and exacerbate the social pressures to date and marry, especially on women. We are told to buy clothes and makeup and to 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, and the capitalists keep profiting.

Be Mine: Possessive Love

The privileging of partner love above other kinds of love puts tremendous pressure on everybody to find “the one” and then more pressure once “the one” is found. The idea that we want to possess someone’s body and their desires, to be their “only,” is a prevalent but twisted notion. After all, what you own is what determines your worth in capitalism. Similarly, having a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a husband or a wife, is a measure of social worth.

Buying, possessing, owning — these activities characteristic of capitalism are not just reserved for material objects, as evidenced by the message printed on so many Valentine’s Day cards, chocolate hearts, and stuffed animals: Be Mine.

But it’s not enough to be coupled; romantic relationships must be monogamous. Possessive love causes us to feel like there is something wrong with us when we desire someone else or that our partner doesn’t love us anymore if they desire someone else. Possessive love tears up our relationships and also tears us up inside.

Enforced monogamy (if only in theory) supports the idea that someone we really love can fulfill all our sexual desires — a tall order for just one person. Monogamy and jealousy are not inherent in human nature but rather a natural consequence of a social structure that separates love between two people from all other forms of love and privileges married love above all else. Although society encourages this kind of monogamy of body and spirit, the cracks are always showing. The prevalence of extramarital affairs and the prevalence of sex work demonstrate the ways in which the practice of love as possession doesn’t really work, even under capitalism.

Although women have won the legal right to not be their husband’s private property (despite the fact that many are still “given away” by their fathers), the sentiment that one’s romantic partner is property — particularly if that partner is a woman — remains ingrained in our culture. The sentiment that women are always already (a man’s) possession is on display when men touch and grope women on the subway, in bars, in workplaces and on the street, exemplifying their entitlement to women’s bodies. The #MeToo movement has highlighted how, in a society that views women as objects, sexual assault and sexual violence are rampant. We have all experienced it.

But this is hardly new. Over 150 years ago, Friedrich Engels argued, “In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore of the paternity of the children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.” Femicide, the last link in a long chain of structural and state violence has been highlighted by the massive #NiUnaMenos movement throughout Latin America. In the U.S., one in four women experience severe domestic abuse from a partner, and every minute 20 people are abused by an intimate partner.

Trapped in Relationships

On the other hand, there is an emerging exemplar of the independent woman who doesn’t need a man to care for her. In fact, less and less women are getting married, more get divorced, and many couples live together without seeking state recognition of the partnership.

Despite its progressive elements, this narrative of female independence ignores the fact that even if we don’t need a man as our other half, most of us need a man, a woman, or somebody to help pay the bills. It is increasingly impossible to survive on a single income, particularly if there are children involved and also because women make .76 cents to a man’s dollar. For Black and Latina women, the pay gap is even greater.

Too often, the narrative of the independent woman is co-opted by “lean-in” feminists, who claim that women can have it all: raise children and have a flourishing career in the business world. It’s a narrative of female independence despite the total lack of a material basis for this independence. How can we be independent if we can’t make rent without the wages of two people? Even what was once considered a good income cannot keep up with the expenses of raising a child.

This economic interdependence makes it difficult for most people to leave relationships even if they are no longer in love. It’s already hard to break up, given the psychological costs of heartbreak and of having to adjust to a life without a partner. However, these kinds of emotional difficulties are compounded when breaking up means losing the benefit of a two-income household and when it means facing the uncertainty of finding a place to live with rent affordable on a single income, which, thanks to gentrification, is becoming ever more challenging.

The economic denial of the ability to enter and exit relationships freely has catastrophic consequences for those attempting to survive domestic violence. Without the guarantee of a job that will pay a living wage, a home with a rent they can afford, or income that provides for children, many stay in abusive relationships, seeing no way out. Women are far more likely than men to find themselves the victims of domestic violence and less likely to see feasible options for exiting the relationship, from both psychological and economic standpoints.

Limits On Our Bodies and Our Desires: Stresses of Capitalism and Lack of Time

Yet, even if you are passionately and deeply in love with your partner, capitalism limits the ability to express and live out that love. For the working class, the time spent at work and while commuting creates a deep exhaustion that is hard to shake. Domestic work, like cooking, cleaning, and childcare, deepens our exhaustion. The day-to-day rush limits our time with our partner and our time with ourselves, and it reduces our lives to eating, sleeping, and working. In what little remains of the day, it is difficult to have the emotional or physical energy to do much more than numb one’s mind and body by watching TV. Passion, sex, intimacy, friendship are forever postponed. Furthermore, the everyday stresses of work and bills are a common cause of fights between couples and of increasing distance between people in general.

The stresses of everyday life place immense pressure on romantic relationships, limiting time, energy, and patience. Not only do the capitalists steal workers’ labor, forcing us to work long hours for the profit of the bosses, but they also indirectly steal our relationships. In taking our time and our energy and paying us crumbs, they detract from our ability to build loving and lasting partnerships.

Creating a Basis for Love

The past decades have in some ways increased sexual and gender liberation. More people come out of the closet today, and marriage is far less compulsory than it once was. Yet, many of the issues explored here point to that fact that the problem is not cosmetic; the problem is the system. Structurally, capitalism limits our time and forces us to stay in relationships; ideologically, we become objects to possess, influenced and limited by homophobia and transphobia. There are no ways to change these structures and these ideologies without the means of production and the will to do it. Love in socialism will free us to build a society based on love, within and outside of romantic partnerships. But we cannot be idealists; in order for love to be free, we must develop an economic basis for this freedom by destroying capitalism and exploitation.


Sexuality   /    Gender & Sexuality   /    Ideas & Debates