The price of love

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Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

There’s no two ways about it, neoliberalism has colonised our hearts.

There’s no two ways about it, neoliberalism has colonised our hearts. Photo: Getty

Last week while reading an article on ‘negotiated fidelity’ I encountered a series of unlovely words. The author called polyamoury ‘sexual risk management against cheating’ and advised us to ‘protect your marriage like any other investment, like taking out insurance when you get a new car or having savings in the bank in case one of the kids gets sick." My problem is not with polyamoury. If people want to have marriages of Mormonic proportions, I have nothing but respect. Imagine not spiralling into early-morning, air-gulping, sheet-twisting neurosis when your partner casually mentions that they’re seeing someone else! Personally, I ‘d rather chew broken glass.  What alarmed me was the author’s casual transformation of love into a trading scheme: partners are joint-entrepreneurs with assets to be invested and managed in a world of risk.

Of course I shouldn’t have been so perturbed. I’ve sighed at the end of relationships about the ‘wasted love given all that I’d invested.’  A close friend has a habit of commenting on other people’s ‘sexual capital’ (meaning sexy body parts) and I’ve seen friends on dating websites order partners like online products and then break up as easily as you’d close a web page.  Forget about giving, compromise and surrender. Love now presides over a supermarket of desire where self-interested consumers perform cost/benefit analyses as they pluck and discard items from the shelves.

There’s no two ways about it, neoliberalism has colonised our hearts.  Like the predatory nature of capitalism itself it has prowled beyond its traditional sphere (the economy) in search of new markets, new areas of life to devour. Not content with the triumph of deregulation, privatisation and paring back the welfare state, neoliberalism has entered our social world and planted its flag in our most intimate terrain.

We have gone from being lovers to being consumers, commodities and entrepreneurs all at once. 

But before we begin bewailing the unhappy marriage of capitalism and romance perhaps we should stop to question whether it’s actually a bad thing. After all, our traditional languages of love aren’t exactly a model of liberation. There’s the military metaphors: you could be struck by cupid’s arrow, enter an amorous battlefield, submit to love’s exquisite torture and engage in erotic conquest. Then there’s love’s Biblical origins, from which we get the idea of passion as a blissful surrender to a higher will (God). There’s the Enlightenment idea of love as an irrational force that needs to be quarantined from the rational civic sphere (to which Beyonce’s ‘Crazy Like Love’ is indebted). And there’s the idea that love and affection are to be kept separate from commerce, from which we get expressions like ‘it’s a labour of love’ or songs like ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’.

All up I don’t think that this romantic tradition does many of us much good. It constructs love as an irrational force that commands submission, which can justify you sticking around in an abusive situation. It suggests that unethical treatment is intrinsic to love (all’s fair in love and war).  And for women the separation between commerce and love has legitimised the idea that care work or domestic labour shouldn’t be paid.

If neoliberalism has meant that women as well as men can now be rational consumers who choose as much as they are chosen then is this really such a bad thing? Traditionally, women were objects of conquest, now we're entrepreneurs who can rationalise precisely how much to invest before pulling out when we see a crash. What’s not to like?

Let’s go back to those four sassy femmes in pre-GFC New York to explore this issue. After all, Sex and The City was a show built entirely upon a neoliberal fantasy of women’s sexual liberation. Carrie’s advice for men mimics her advice for shoe-shopping: ‘try’ as many as possible ‘to see if they fit for size.’ Academic Eva Y.I. Chen, describes SATC as a world of conspicuous consumption and sexual abundance where empowered, confident women pursue lives of self-gratification, unperturbed by marriage. It’s a vision that works nicely in tandem with free trade and global capitalism. 

The problem is that when you look a little bit closer, there’s actually very little to differentiate these women from traditional romantic heroines.  In spite of their cleverness, they rarely discuss anything outside of romance, nor do their desires extend beyond finding a husband to settle down. Chen says that they all end up basing their self-worth on ‘the same eroticised and fashionably adorned female bodily charm that capitalism and patriarchy have always prescribed’.

Sex and the City presents people like businesses: you need to work hard to improve your competitiveness in a sexual marketplace. What does this mean? It means that you need to uphold an impossible standard of beauty or social status. Not everyone can afford it or is even capable of it, which is why you don’t see any black, poor or old women and why it’s set in New York not Dhaka.

The real misery of imposing neoliberalism on matters of the heart lies in the fact that it introduces greed and self-interest into something that should be about sharing and compromise. It forces women and men into a ceaseless regime of self-surveillance in order to maintain market competitiveness and then blames them, rather than ridiculous standards of beauty and inequalities of wealth, if they lose. It encourages fleeting superficial affairs over meaningful relationships. And it takes words like choice and freedom, that have traditionally had broad, universal social meanings and confines them to the individual and the market. No wonder the girls in Sex and The City, beneath the Manolo Blahniks, facial peels and fashion, seemed so anxious, self-obsessed and fragile.

If we accept that words go some way towards shaping our reality then perhaps it’s time we clothed our intimate lives a new vocabulary; one made from a more gentle fabric than war, commerce or god. 

9 comments

  • Forget love; next time I'm going for the money, pure, hard and simple. Trouble was, I was brought up to believe in the nobilities of life. Love was the higher cause and effect and all that mattered in a relationship. But where was the bartering power? In reality, it has proven severely impractical and painful. Enough!

    Commenter
    reality bites
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    June 25, 2013, 8:47AM
    • "All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart.

      But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,

      Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,

      Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

      Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.

      Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

      For love is sufficient unto love."

      Khalil Gibran - The Prophet

      Commenter
      davros
      Date and time
      June 25, 2013, 4:56PM
  • I don't see anything inherently wrong with looking at romance from more than the pulse-pounding/I-am-so-in-love stage. Relationships are a constant negotiation. Some happen more naturally than others but I doubt anyone who has been in one for longer than a few weeks/months would say that they are effortless.

    I like that my relationship is a partnership and not some sort of unbalanced power-struggle where each gender has their "sphere of influence" and one person makes all/most decisions in that sphere with barest consultation with the other person.

    But I've been told that I'm remarkably unromantic for a woman.

    Commenter
    TK
    Date and time
    June 25, 2013, 8:55AM
    • We constantly try to explain things using metaphors for other areas of our lives though. Working in finance I can tell you that relationships and marriage can easily be discussed in financial terms, and I'd have to say it makes it a lot clearer what a bad deal they can be!

      Greed and self interest are always a fair chance of being at least part of a relationship, whether it's greed for children, a housewife, money, travel, social climbing or any number of other things that one person has and the other desires. So long as both people are aware of the motivations and goals of the other and are comfortable with it then what's the problem?

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      June 25, 2013, 9:31AM
      • Happily married for 6 years and with a promise made to continue this way 'til death parts us. We live in a selfish nation. My promise to my wife is to put her desires above mine, and she promises to seek my betterment first. Two people looking out for the best of each other. Let's just stop being so greedy and selfish. Selfish people cannot be faithful. I do not need to "try elsewhere" because my best friend/wife is looking to make my life joyful everyday. If you can't stay true to one person, you don't deserve them. Be well.

        Commenter
        Kyle
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        June 25, 2013, 10:37AM
        • “Neoliberalism has entered our social world and planted its flag in our most intimate terrain”….. please Alecia, wasn’t that the 60’s? The times of laissez-faire liaisons (free love) is over. Neoliberal love would be supply equaling demand…and even without the visuals of Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys in an orgy with Thatcher & Co., it doesn’t sound like today. Neoliberal love would be a free market, one without regulations. What I see around me is a world of restrained promiscuity, with high barriers of entry. To have that ‘sexual capital’ you need gym memberships & personal trainers (taxes) and to compete with those ‘sassy femmes’ you need designer shoes and clothes (more taxes). Perhaps Neocolonialism – where the more developed exploit the less developed – is a better term to use.

          Commenter
          n
          Date and time
          June 25, 2013, 11:52AM
          • I think the Beyonce song is called ‘Crazy In Love’ rather than ‘Crazy Like Love’.

            Commenter
            Jude
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            June 25, 2013, 12:02PM
            • Here's my poly-story for ya all. I'm a lovely feller. I'm probably the nicest person you could ever meet. I like people. I hate hurting them. My friends laugh at me because I'm so quick to forgive, or see the best in people - until I have definitive proof that someone is a mongrel, I'll treat them well. And I'm big, occasionally scary - I'm not a pushover. I'm just happier in a world where people are generally decent, whatever the evidence.

              I don't understand jealousy. It makes no sense to me. I can see most people DO care about that, so I go into a relationship understanding that. To avoid hurting my partner, I will be monogamous - I DO understand hurting people, usually... But if my girlfriend or even wife slept with someone else, it honestly wouldn't bother me in the slightest.

              When I was a young bloke I tried to live like that - made sure everyone was clear: I'm not exclusive, I don't expect you to be, but I love you and I care for you deeply.

              Didn't work. That's what I learned: however you think people SHOULD behave, people are weird. Having a half of me, or a quarter of me, that's sorta offensive. And as arbitrary as anything offensive is (THAT finger is offensive, but that one is nothing at all...) the fact remains that people feel bad. It doesn't matter that you think they SHOULDN'T feel bad: they do.

              So that's life. If you can find a group that can live a certain way and be happy - DO that. But no matter how sure you are of a certain thing, always be watching - am I hurting people? Am I wrong about these people?

              Be careful. That's all.

              Commenter
              Magpie
              Date and time
              June 25, 2013, 12:06PM
              • "Sexual Capital"...I like that phrase good enough to start incorporating it into my everyday vernacular. Your friend sounds awesome Alecia.

                Commenter
                Ms Natalya
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                June 25, 2013, 4:00PM
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