Against Love: Love Politics Revisited

PeterSteinerThe Idea: Author Laura Kipnis argues that monogamy is unnatural and unhealthy, and possibly complicit in our emotional detachment from political life and our ecosystem as well.

Laura Kipnis, despite the title of of her 200-page “polemic”, is not Against Love. Rather, she’s against the trappings, the rules, the rituals that our culture imposes on love relationships. She goes even further — she sees marriage, the institution, as every bit as repressive, suffocating and unnatural as our mind-numbing employment in modern hierarchical organizations, and draws strong parallels between the slavery of the workplace and the slavery of the matrimonial home. These two canons of civilization: our need and responsibility to devote our daytime hours to meaningless subordinate labour, and our need and responsibility to devote the rest of our hours to boring, stifling and unsatisfying monogamy, work together diabolically to keep us suppressed, and in our ‘place’ in society. Small wonder, she says, that one of our most enduring conventional wisdoms is that “a good marriage takes work“.

If this protestation against the rigours of monogamy, fidelity and marriage-slavery as the complement to wage-slavery sounds familiar, it’s because it’s very similar to the argument that Glenn Parton made in his essay posted first on these pages last year entitled “Love Politics“. Glenn’s argument is that we have become so emotionally numbed by our twin bondage to job and marriage that it has made our hearts cold and hard, uncaring of the plight of our planet and of others, and that this is a direct cause of the destruction of our world. “If I’m miserable, why should I care about anyone else?” Dare to love more than one person, he suggests, and the shackles of this self-imposed imprisonment are broken, and the inrush of emotion will shock us into awareness of, and eagerness to heal, the massive emotional and physical illness of our entire planet.

Why should we, why do we subject ourselves to this one-love-partner-slavery as easily and as passively as we do to wage-slavery? This is the subject of much of Ms. Kipnis’ book. Her prose is so adept and so powerful I won’t attempt to paraphrase her arguments. Here are a few teasers:

Is it the persistence of the work ethic that ties us to the compassionate couple and its workaday regimes, or is it the ethos of compassionate coupledom that ties us to sould-deadening work regimes…Resenting the boss? Feeling bored or overworked or dissatisfied? Getting complaints about your attitude? Whether it’s “on the relationship” or “on the job” get yourself right to the therapist’s office, pronto. There are only two possible diagnoses for all such modern ailments: it’s going to be either “intimacy issues” or “authority issues”. You’ll soon discover that the disease doubles as the prescription at this clinic: You’re just going to have to “work harder on yourself”…

Take the modern consumer. Clearly, routing desire into consumption would be necessary to sustain a consumer society — a citizenry who fucked in lieu of shopping would soon bring the entire economy grinding to a standstill. Or better still, take the modern depressive. What a boon to both the modern pharmaceutical and the social-harmony industries that such a social type would be. These are merely hypotheticals of course, since it’s not as if we live in a society of consumers and depressives, or as if the best strategy for the latter weren’t widely held to be strategically indulging in the former — “retail therapy”…Love’s proper denouement, matrimony, is also of course the social form regulated by the state, which refashions itself as a benevolent pharmacist, doling out the addictive substance in licensed doses…What about re-envisioning [marriage] or… insisting that social resources and privileges not be allocated on the basis of marital status? No. let’s demand regulation! Not that it’s easy to re-envision anything when these intersections of love and acquiescence are the very backbone of the modern self, when every iota of self-worth and identity hinge on them…Domestic coupledom is the boot camp for compliant citizenship, a training ground for gluey resignation and immobility

Ms. Kipnis suggests the same lack of innovation that permeates the workplace in the 21st century also permeates domestic institutions:

Different social norms could entail something entirely different: yearly renewable contracts for example. And if we weren’t so emotionally yoked to the social forms we’ve inherited that trying to envision different ways of having a love life seems intellectually impossible and even absurd, who knows what other options might present themselves?…It behooves [our] society to convince its citizenry that wanting change means personal failure, starting over is shameful, and wanting more satisfaction than you have is illegitimate…As love has increasingly become the center of all emotional expression in the modern imagination — the quantity without which life seems forlorn — anxiety about obtaining it in sufficient quantities and for sufficient duration has increased to the point that that anxiety suffuses the population, and most of our cultural forms…Uncoupling [then] can only be experienced as ego-crushing crisis and inadequacy…[and] the grief of failed love is exacerbated by inevitable feelings of personal failure…

Much of the latter part of the book is focused on the psychological gymnastics of all three (or more) parties in the polygon of adultery, from the rationalization that hiding the affair is to protect the feelings of the cuckold, to the feelings of self-hatred and self-flagellation of the ‘sinner(s)’. She also discusses the awkward mechanics of the ultimate break-up of either the marriage or the affair (or both), and the degree to which children of the relationship become hostages, or excuses for deception, or excuses for the boredom that gave rise to the deception. Of course the book also talks about famous infidelities in high political circles, and the twisted hypocrisy of conservatives’ opposition to same-sex marriage, as well as the equal-opportunity-for-misery desire of lesbians and gays to gain access to the sad and repressive regulation of ‘official’ marriage rather than ‘settling for’ merely the legal and resource rights that come with equivalent-to-married status. And there’s also a discussion of the pragmatic phenomenon of “serial monogamy” — the fall-back that there’s nothing wrong with marriage per se, it’s just that we were all married to the wrong person.

All of this is complicated (even more) by the emergence of the Two-Income Trap, which imposes a financial prison on top of the emotional one in marriage. We have to stay together because we can’t afford to live apart. I am convinced that this one factor is overwhelmingly responsible for keeping the rate of divorce from reaching astronomical levels. It is also probably helpful in keeping birth rates in the West below replacement levels — Not only can we not afford children, we certainly don’t want any (or any more) with the spouse we’re economically shackled to. And having one with the secret love is just too messy. In my recent article predicting a baby boom, perhaps I underestimated the sheer perverseness of a socioeconomic system that not only makes parenthood financially reckless, it also suppresses fertility rates by its expressed moral repugnance for having a child by someone other than your boring spouse.

A lot of people, some of their own free will, and many more who have been pushed, have recently broken free of wage slavery and are now working, mostly for much less income, for themselves. That’s probably a good thing in many ways — it reduces the supply of the remaining wage slaves, which might actually, in time, allow them to bargain from a position of at least a bit of power. It increases self-sufficiency. It reduces excessive consumption. What if there were a similar revolution against marriage slavery? What if a whole generation just refused to define themselves (in more ways than one) as married, or to live with the constraints of monogamy, and instead opted for a polyamory life-style?

Paternity ‘rights’ and responsibilities would both probably suffer, as the new family unit would be a woman (or possibly, and more logically, a group of women, in self-selected community) and their children. They would have the power, and could strike whatever contract they chose with males who wanted the responsibilities and privileges of fatherhood. The nuclear family and the ‘single-family dwelling’ would disappear. Conjugal relations would not attach to parental responsibility, and could be negotiated between any two people as individuals on a one-shot basis, with no responsibility other than the responsibility to prevent unwanted pregnancy and disease. This would probably be bad for the oldest profession, as the supply/demand ratio for quick couplings would soar. Jealousy and the consequent domestic violence that is the scourge of our nuclear spouse-as-property society would, slowly (old habits die hard), disappear. I think the vast majority of men, driven by million-year-old biological imperatives, once they reached a certain age, would choose to attach themselves to one of the matriarchal communities (if so invited), and would do their share to provide for its well-being, in return for the company and sense of purpose that would bring.

We are told it takes a village, a community, to raise a child. Perhaps the community is necessary, and sufficient, for far more: To break us all free from both the emotionally numbing subjugation of wage-slavery and the misery and boredom of marriage-slavery. The community would then become truly self-sufficient in every respect, and we would be happier and freer than we can, or dare, imagine.

Cartoon: By Peter Steiner from The New Yorker, in the Cartoon Bank

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11 Responses to Against Love: Love Politics Revisited

  1. Meitar says:

    This was an absolutely fascinating read.I have had personal and philosophical qualms with the whole idea of monogamy for as long as I can remember. (My therapist would surely say it’s because my parents got divorced when I was still a child.) My experiences have strengthened the belief that monogamy is typically a sub-optimal relationship paradigm perpetuated through fear and hatred by those unable to renounce it.Thank you for writing this.

  2. Rajiv says:

    As usual a very incisive look into relationships. You might also find useful stuff at a good essay on “The Simple Guide to Relationships or Why Love is Simpler Than You Think” at a Salon article on polyamory

  3. Fascinating theory, but I beg to differ. I think there are people who aren’t suited to monogamy, and I don’t think people who remain single or go through numerous relationships should be stigmatized in any way. But if you find the person such a relationship will work with, monogamy can be a wonderful thing. Not perfect, not always peaceful, certainly. But I’ve found my marriage (21 years so far) to be the best, most enduring and deepest friendship I’ve had in this life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And I can’t tell you how many times one of us has encouraged the other to speak out, or to vote.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments and links, which I also recommend to readers. There are a couple of discussion forums on polyamory as well for those interested in learning more, or preparing a defence ;-)Barbara: No argument, though I wonder if you can state with any great assurance that if you had been in a polyamory relationship with your partner and others in your chosen community, with occasional guilt-free and freely-admitted dalliances with others besides your partner, you might not have been even happier?

  5. Niran Sabanathan says:

    So when has greater choice made anybody happier ? Is the choice of polyamory the same tired consumer argument that seems to proliferate for ice cream(why do we need 51 flavours ?), TV sations, cars etc… more choice has got to mean a better product. Or do discipline and boundaries create a deeper relationship ? To illustrate, would switching an instrument every 6 months because one is bored create a better muscian or does playing the same violin for 30 years create a deeper understanding and appreciation of music ?

  6. Aleah says:

    I personally do not believe that we are inherently monogamous. However, I don’t think this is the driving force behind the divorce rate or dissatisfaction some might feel in their relationship, not do I think this contributes to the disengagement of “the citizen.” Part of the problem we face in engaging in relationship with others and with our world, is the twofold tale of individualism versus communion with others. Pop psych and capitalism tells us that we owe it to ourself to “be true” and follow our bliss, while ignoring the fact that this message can be taken for face value, leaving our obligations to others and the land at the door.We may not need to be monogamous, but we need others; we need love, community, connection. The manufacturing of “self” and “romance” has robbed us of the authentic connection to Life – regardless of what life that is. We have lost touch with what it means to be an individual in communion with the world.

  7. I’ve always felt that marriage and monogamy were useful societal tools hundreds of years ago, when our lifespans were a third of what they are now. Given that the average North American will live well into his or her seventies, it seems ludicrous to suggest that he or she will find one other person worth investing an entire lifetime in… On the other hand, there are exceptions to every rule, and when you find someone you want to be with, someone you’re afraid to be without… Hmm. Perhaps that just solidifies the individuality-through-polygamy theory… But doesn’t a marriage sometimes feel like an excuse to take your partner for granted?

  8. David Pratt says:

    I was an almost hippie once Dave, and you’re old enough to remember those days, back in the late ’60s. Here in the states there was a deep sense of generosity and openness among those of us who were “tuned in.” We were new explorers! The promise of “free love” was intoxicatingly hopeful as it played out on an American backdrop of stifling social patriarchy with its underpinnings of neglect, abuse, bigotry, sexism, and violence. We were ALIVE with promise and possibility. But there were unexpected surprises. We didn’t know enough about ourselves, about how we worked, what made us groove and what bummed us out. We tried to cover and compensate with discriminating

  9. “I wonder if you can state with any great assurance that if you had been in a polyamory relationship with your partner and others in your chosen community, with occasional guilt-free and freely-admitted dalliances with others besides your partner, you might not have been even happier?”Dave, all I can say with any great assurance about that is: I do not know. :)

  10. Jasen Robillard says:

    “I wonder if you can state with any great assurance that if you had been in a polyamory relationship with your partner and others in your chosen community, with occasional guilt-free and freely-admitted dalliances with others besides your partner, you might not have been even happier?”A challenging hypothetical question perhaps worth posing but ultimately not one that will provide any answers with “any great assurance”. Few of us have the ability to foretell how different decisions would have affected us in the long term in parellel lives. Such things are simply unknowable and questions about the unknowable don’t really prove anything…Call me young and naive, but I personally don’t think that the pursuit of selfish happiness and free love will lead us “to save the world”. Arguably, the road to a better world is now paved with self-sacrifice and restraint in large part due to recent decades of over indulgence. Does self-sacrifice and restraint involve community growth and development? I think so – but certainly not at the exclusion of alledgedly suboptimal monogamous relationships.

  11. JC says:

    There is war, disease, poverty, an ecological catastrophe in the making, and you want to talk about sleeping around? Sigh.Fine then – how about this. In perhaps 5-15% of the cases where “occasional liasons” outside of the primary bond, are allowed, this can happen without too many issues. For that percent, fine – enjoy, with hopefully deep consideration and respect of your partners. But in the other 85-95%, the experiment fails. Too many feelings of hurt, jealousy, betrayal are involved, to be overcome. Not to mention – the kids! Pretty much all the data suggests that kids need, from infant through the teen years, a stable and caring home, permanent and loving parents/guardians. Inevitably, kids that are with parents that have stayed married, have less issues and are better adjusted. So, it might be something to experiment with after the kids have “left the nest” so to speak.

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