Essay by Corina Dross, from a lecture given at the Radical Relationships event on March 9, 2012. Corina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Intimacy is often considered outside the realm of political discourse; politics is what we do out there, not what happens in our homes, our friendships, and our romances. We know this is false, but that knowledge itself doesn’t transform our lives. We still carry shame and fear about our private needs and desires–and we look to our communities for clues about the appropriate ways to get these needs met. So when we mirror for each other the same policing and oppression we’ve learned from the larger culture, we’re failing to demand a better world for ourselves and the people we love. The enterprise of radical relationships is to create a language that we haven’t yet learned, that can subvert the language we’ve been given, as we struggle to analyze how the alienation that permeates our world specifically functions in the details of our intimate lives. It’s important that this enterprise be public and collective, to avoid the trap of buying into the self-help book mentality–which advises us to analyze our own deepest fears and worst habits alone or with a therapist, or with a partner or best friend–but as an individual project, without agitating for the world to better meet our collective needs.
And our own worst habits are not merely ours; most likely, they arise in response to larger systems of oppression, which we all face, and which we internalize. There are multiple intersections of oppression in our lives, but let’s focus here on capitalist processes of alienation. If we look at some specific ways capitalism creates suffering–and makes this suffering appear normal and invisible–we may see parallels in our intimate lives and begin to formulate forms of resistance.
There are many cultural side-effects of the capitalist project, worth discussing in future conversations, but for now let’s start with the idea of artificial scarcity. If we agree that capitalism shapes our world through processes that consolidate wealth, power, and resources amongst very few–creating scarcity and need for the rest of us, robbing us of time to pursue our own deepest desires and interests, time with friends and loved ones, access to healthy food and housing, access to medical care, and a thousand other necessary things, we can imagine how much pressure there is on our intimate relationships, which are supposedly outside of the public sphere, to be sites of abundance. It’s somewhat fantastical that we could expect one person (or several, depending on how we arrange our love lives) to make up for all that lack. But popular narratives reinforce this: that love will fix all our problems; that a long-lasting romantic partnership should fill all that is empty in us; that we must give to our lovers all that the world can’t.
I’m sure most of us have come face-to-face with our own inability to give our lovers what they need, despite our best efforts–or have felt how inadequate our partners have been in caring for us and meeting our needs. To some degree, our material scarcity prevents us from having the time to devote to our loved ones. But deeper than that, internalized oppression from capitalism (and other systems of violence) renders us not only damaged but damaging; in this way true expressions of care and intimacy can feel scarce. Because intimacy under capitalism not only promises a private space for transcendent, abundant freedom in which we can access our best selves (in opposition to the drudgery and anonymity of the marketplace), it also serves as a necessary release valve for our worst selves (where the consequences of our terrible behavior won’t be as public). I’d also argue that we can’t fully divorce our sense of identity from the economic conditions of capitalism; even the language we use for relationships is conditioned by the marketplace. We speak of “investing” in a relationship, we try to measure love as though it can be numbered, or exchanged like money, with a tally of debts owed and paid. With this fear of scarcity, we become competitive and insecure. We see love as limited, conditional, and rare–something to be earned, and like any other commodity, something that can be lost or stolen.
So how do we begin to resist the effects of the marketplace on our intimate lives, especially as we recognize that even in the privacy of our homes and beds and minds, we aren’t free of capitalist conditioning?
There isn’t one simple solution. But there are ways to begin. In “Twelve Theses on Changing the World without Taking Power,” John Holloway writes, “If separation, alienation (etc) is understood as a process, then this implies that its course is not pre-determined, that the transformation of power…is always open, always at issue.” Which is to say that transformation exists as a germ in our unvoiced experiences, in the moments we stray from the script.
I began by saying that radical intimacy needs to create a language that we haven’t yet learned, to subvert the language we’ve been given. This process has already begun, to an extent, in feminist and queer communities. We owe a huge debt to the language of identity politics even as we need to push past its reductive habits. Oppression functions by making itself seem normal and invisible–we partake in it everyday, until the day we stop and begin taking it apart. This requires vigilance toward normalizing forces even within our radical communities.
Because even in these communities that strive to offer prefigurative or alternate sites of intimacy, outside the model of the couple as a site mythical abundance, we rarely succeed in uprooting these myths. Rather, we pride ourselves on being self-sufficient, on practicing self-care, keeping our needs in check, and being productive activists who can keep fighting the good fight and require little from the world. We submit to the public discourse that legitimizes economic, rational models and disparages emotional experiences. Very few of us expect our friends, our casual sex partners, our political comrades, or our coworkers to actively care for us—that is, to provide us with sufficient emotional or material support—unless we’re facing some unusual crisis (if we can even swallow our pride and ask for help in those circumstances). If we have a romantic partner, we may or may not expect such care from that person. But care itself generally feels precarious, scarce, vaguely understood, and somewhat shameful to need. Think how much harder it is to describe what’s missing from your emotional life than from your material world.
Invisible and unspeakable, without a meaningful lexicon, is the world of care. No human could survive or thrive without touch, affection, nurturing, attention, compassion, validation, or empathy–yet the need for these acts of care (which are often gendered as feminine, no matter who provides them) has been subsumed into necessary invisibility by a system that depends on depriving us of the means to tend to our own lives. I highly recommend a text on this topic by a militant feminist research group from Spain, called Precarias a la Deriva (the text is translated as “A Caring Strike”). They describe how capitalism has found ways to isolate and commodify certain acts of care; customer service workers, sex workers, teachers and childcare providers, even cooks and waiters, all provide fragmented aspects of the care we all need to survive. Yet even in the marketplace, we rarely recognize that what we’re purchasing is care. When I worked as a phone sex operator, few of my callers recognized that they called to receive reassurance, compassion, and attention as well as (or sometimes more than) sexual release. By providing these forms of care under the table, as it were, hidden within the product they were buying, I met these men’s emotional needs while allowing those needs to remain invisible to them. Precarias a la Deriva ask us to consider what “a caring strike” might look like–acts that could make public and visible such invisible and unspoken acts of care; ways to foreground a continuum of care as the basis of human life, outside of any market value, and outside of any transaction in which we “earn” care by being worthy of it, beyond our merely being human.
So let’s begin by finding words for what’s still unspoken between us. Because acts of care, when they can’t be commodified, often entirely disappear from consciousness and language. Gender often dictates who does the emotional support work in an intimate relationship–or any relationship. Yet because the act of caring is itself gendered, no matter who performs it, it is almost always rendered invisible or unimportant. What stories do we tell ourselves and each other that overwrite the care we are trying to give and receive? How does gender determine these narratives? What violence have we swallowed that becomes fixated on our lovers? What shame do we carry about needing support, and through what subterrenean fissures does this seep into our friendships? It’s curious, too, that our basic human need for care has become an insult—when we call someone “too needy,” for example–when by definition a human need can never be excessive; the lack is not in us, but in the artificial scarcity of the world that should nourish us.