Ewan Morrison is an interesting fellow. He wrote a brilliant novel, Swung, about a dysfunctional couple who join the swinging scene. The internet partner swap market depicted in Morrison’s book is sordid and unkind, but the experiences Morrison’s couple go through affirms their love for each other. It is a perverse paean to monogamy.
It’s also a romantic thesis, that Morrison repeats in this article, where he argues that ‘What we once thought of as radical – staying single – may now be reactionary.’
The long-term relationship, like the job-for-life, is fast being deregulated into short term, temporary arrangements with no promise of commitment, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has been warning us for over a decade. It’s hard for two people to be self-employed, with no promise of a stable future, together. Capitalism now wants us to be single.
Being single, has since the 60s been seen as a radical choice, a form of rebellion against bourgeois capitalist conformism. As sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann says, the shift away from family life to solo lifestyles in the 20th century was part of the ‘irresistible momentum of individualism’. But this ‘freedom’ looks a lot less glamorous when viewed through the perspective of planned changes in consumerism.
It now makes economic sense to convince the populace to live alone. Singles consume 38% more produce, 42% more packaging, 55% more electricity and 61% more gas per capita than four-person households, according to a study by Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University. In the US, never-married single people in the 25-to-34 age bracket, now outnumber married people by 46%, according to the Population Reference Bureau. And divorce is a growth market: one broken family means that two households have to buy two cars, two washing machines, two TVs. The days of the nuclear family as ideal consumption unit are over.
As capitalism sinks into stagnation, corporations have realised that there are two new growth strands – firstly, in the emerging singles market and secondly in encouraging divorce and the concept of individual freedom. This can be seen in changes in advertising, with products as diverse as burgers and holidays being targeted towards singles – in particular single women. New ads for Honda and Citibank expound solitary self-discovery and relationship postponement over coupledom. As Catherine Jarvie says, ‘top-pocket relationships’ where ‘neither party is looking for long-term commitment’ are the new way – witness the meteoric rise of dating website Match.com. In the US, Craiglist ads expose the subconscious connection between disposable consumerism and self-selling: one reads ‘Buy my IKEA sofa and fuck me on it first, $100’.
Consumerism now wants you to be single, so it sells this as sexy. The irony is that it’s now more radical to attempt to be in a long-term relationship and a long-term job, to plan for the future, maybe even to attempt to have children, than it is to be single. Coupledom, and long-term connections with others in a community, now seem the only radical alternative to the forces that will reduce us to isolated, alienated nomads, seeking ever more temporary ‘quick fix’ connections with bodies who carry within them their own built-in perceived obsolescence.
A few thoughts.
For the last half century there has been a backlash against the 1960s and we forget how limited people’s options were. Establishment politicians aren’t individualists. They are part of this romantic and communitarian backlash. They talk endlessly about the family and community, to the extent that – as Isabel Hardman pointed out – politicos now say ‘families’ when they simply mean ‘people’. Backlash thinkers will piss and moan because the 1960s social revolution didn’t trigger the ideal state they wanted. But these freedoms are worth having even if they don’t guarantee a less capitalist society. But then the radical left cares little for freedom and, as we’ve seen, less for women’s rights.
In fact it is easier to start a family now than it has ever been. Potential parents have free IVF treatment, subsidised housing allocated by need, flexible working, paternity leave, and a raft of child-related benefits. The problem for families, particularly young families, is the rising cost of rents, fuel and living expenses, aggravated by the failure of austerity. A working parent has to put everything selfish aside for the sake of his children. He has a moral imperative to work any job, make any sacrifice, get exploited in any way he can if this puts food on the table. A position more vulnerable to the vagaries of capitalism it would be difficult to find.
Morrison says: ‘The irony is that it’s now more radical to attempt to be in a long-term relationship and a long-term job, to plan for the future, maybe even to attempt to have children, than it is to be single.’ Again, it’s an interesting point – but when it comes to relationships it’s better to be happy than to be radical. We don’t have a duty or obligation to make these commitments just because of a countercultural thesis about late capitalism. No relationship is better than an abusive or unhappy relationship.
No, Morrison’s utopia of Facebook baby photos does not appeal. As Cerys Matthews once sang: ‘And as for some happy ending/I’d rather stay single and thin.’