Capitalism Doesn’t Care That You’re Single

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.’

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11 Responses to “Capitalism Doesn’t Care That You’re Single”

  1. Paul Murdoch Says:

    There’s been a fairly well known thesis around since the 1860s which relates social relations to the mode of production. It’s a well thought out piece of work; probably the best researched, multiply revised, impeccably empirical work on political economy we’ll ever see. (and it’s not noticeably historicist and, contrary to popular opinion, contains little which would the liberal in thrall to individual liberty.)
    Personally, I’m quite glad nobody-especially those given to insightful social commentary- ever seem to bother reading the thing. I’m so often left with a self satisfied feeling of ‘yeah…read that…knew that’. In fact, if an alien asked me for an insight into political Praxis, I’d tell him/her/it to read Das Kapital (and a decent history of the French Revolution). All subsequent carryings on just ‘constitute footnotes’.
    It’s not exactly a light read but considering the dividends it would pay the “look at this radical thought I’ve just had” type commentator, I’m amazed it’s not regarded as essential reading. And it surely represents Manchester’s gift to the world; a partial ameliorative to counter mature capitalism and Alex Ferguson.

    Have you read the new Jeanette Winterson Pendle Witch book btw? I read it on a train and I loved it in the way you do when you can’t decide whether you liked it or not. Couldn’t decide if it wasn’t really just a glorified screenplay or although the fact that it was published by Hammer probably had an undue influence. Then again, she gave little cameos to Shakespeare and John Dee…in fact there was a pronounced aura of Peter Ackroyd About he whole thing.

  2. Robin Carmody Says:

    I’m always torn a propos all this stuff; for a long time I really did believe that the best way out of the trap of neoliberalism was simply to recreate and reclaim what had been normal in the pre-1960s world. But I don’t feel that way now, and I suppose it is because I have become more humanist and less dogmatic. Just because New Left ideas were lifted and taken out of context and became Murdochian ideas does not mean they were bad things *originally* and *in themselves*; something can be used to justify something bad while still being good and positive in itself. The fact that capitalism has got a lot smarter and cleverer at marketing mass culture than anyone could have imagined in the 60s doesn’t mean that the capitalist culture that existed before then was a positive or enlightening one.

    Taken to its ultimate extreme, this ideology would portray anyone living in a “small community” who listens, as I do, to the working-class radical music of marginalised urban communities as having let the cohesion and structure of those communities down, as having gone against the “natural cohesion” of the place. In other words, a merger between the supposedly radical Left, as represented by Morrison, and the romantic Old Right, which is at least as troubling as any triangulation between the soft-Left and free-market Right. I can understand why Morrison says what he says, and historically it has quite a lot to back it up, but I cannot endorse it myself; in the end, it wrongly conflates and equates the new capitalism’s twisting of New Left ideas with those New Left ideas themselves, which is as bad and historically misleading as equating the passive consumption of Sky with the ideas on broadcasting deregulation originally developed in ‘New Society’ in the 60s & 70s, or Poulsonesque rubbish with Le Corbusier, or The View with The Beatles.

  3. Robin Carmody Says:

    The Beatles comparison is a particularly good one, I think – people in the 90s and 00s making all sorts of horrible, reactionary music would invoke the Beatles to justify themselves, but that didn’t cancel out the absolute necessity of the Beatles when they happened, or justify the society that existed before them. The comparison with capitalism picking up on New Left ideas of the single person or the individual is instructive; it obviously Wasn’t A Good Thing, but it didn’t invalidate the original ideas or justify the ancien regime.

  4. Robin Carmody Says:

    (I also think Morrison’s Scottishness is significant here – that sort of communitarian, vaguely nostalgic interpretation of Left politics and anti-capitalism is more prevalent in Scotland than England, by some way.)

  5. Robin Carmody Says:

    I mean, the change in the nature of capitalism *has* happened; it *was* more about the long-term and planning and families and jobs for life and it *is* more about the short-term and the quick fix and singles and flexible employment. But simply to celebrate the old capitalist order as an alternative – what hard-leftists would call “reformism” – ignores the very real reasons why people were dissatisfied with the ancien regime in the first place.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Very good points here Robin, and thanks for taking the time to comment so extensively

      • Robin Carmody Says:

        It’s like when people lazily mock smalltown shire kids writing on walls “PORTLAND BOIZ REP YA ENDZ” (as happens round my way), and I think “well, what’s the alternative?” The alternative – and people ought to know what it is because it existed in this country well within living memory – would be the music that inspires them being turned back at the gates in a sort of mass cultural quarantine. Would people really want that? Isn’t that precisely what they themselves fought against with Radio Caroline, etc.?

        People like Morrison are so lost in sub-Marxist theory that they don’t have a real grasp of modern history. If capitalism has repackaged a lot of pop-cultural rebellion for itself – and it undeniably has – the radical path is to create something new, not to live exactly as people would have lived if it had been Craig Douglas, forever and ever, amen.

      • Robin Carmody Says:

        And the anti-internet part of the Left (viz ‘NottinghamFlorist’ in the Guardian comments) is merely the son of what Paul Johnson was when he wrote ‘The Menace of Beatlism’, and we know how ridiculous history has made *that* sound.

  6. Rhys Needham Says:

    Robin, would the fact that a lot of the New Right that supports the current economic paradigm(s) originally came from the New Left, or those they look up to, have something to do with it?

    • Robin Carmody Says:

      Yes. Indisputably and undoubtedly.

      But I just get twitchy when I hear all this “it’s rebellious to be what used to be conformist” talk, because it seems to be glossing up a lot of older inequities and prejudices that were hidden beneath the well-scrubbed surface of Butskellite Britain (for example, I have a very intelligent and knowledgeable teenage relative who is suffering a kind of breakdown partially as a result of family breakdown and insecurity which wouldn’t have been so common 50 years ago, and I suspect has had a hard time at school for being “too clever” which is always depressing, but back then many intelligent young people were thwarted by anti-intellectualism within unhappy nuclear families and/or the even lower horizons of the secondary moderns). Arguments like Morrison’s remind me in some ways of Darcus Howe back at the turn of the century, clearly surprised at how well he got on with the landed aristocracy of Northumberland and even saying that these were the new rebels against Blair – maybe they were at that time, but a) that didn’t make them good, because not all rebels have a cause worth fighting for, and b) since that strange moment there has been a total merger between American-led mass media culture and the traditional British elite, briefly in conflict during the 90s and very early (pre-Golden Jubilee?) 00s, which eliminates all the criteria by which Howe was partially justifying the latter class.

      But yes, most New Right ideas on individualism and freedom of choice are developments of 60s/70s New Left ideas, often by the same people. I’m acutely aware of that, as I am of the fact that so many US neoconservatives are former Trotskyists who merely changed the ending of their revolutionary/utopian creed, and this is why articles like Morrison’s are sensitive to me, because while I have to take my own path in the end, I understand entirely *why* people think those things because I know what happened to get us where we are now. I certainly think it’s rebellious and anti-establishment in modern Britain to question the cultural status of the Rolling Stones, for example – it’s just that I’d be asserting Tempa T in their place rather than Eric Coates, I’d want to go *further* forward rather than backwards. Ultimately I don’t think people’s relationships should really be considered “radical” or “reactionary” – some kinds of relationships, or not, will feel better for different people, just as my parents have had a happy, settled marriage for 33 years but A.N. Other Man and A.N. Other Woman who married in 1979 might not have. The main task should be to create a society where no option is discriminated against, whether by global capitalism or nation states.

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