This Valentine’s Day, Let’s Look to Marxists To Reimagine Love, Romance and Sex
Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci has been quoted quite a lot in recent years amid our various political catastrophes from Trump to Covid-19 to climate collapse and the political center’s seeming inability to resist any of the above. The most famous line from his Prison Notebooks, written between 1929 and 1935 while a political prisoner of the Mussolini regime, is probably: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” This is sometimes more loosely translated as “The old world is dying and the new cannot be born; now is the time of monsters.”
It’s certainly fitting to think of what Gramsci was writing from a fascist prison in today’s political climate. But it’s also true that we’re in another sort of interregnum, one of romance, sexuality and gender itself. And this one comes with its very own set of morbid symptoms, as anyone who’s tried dating lately can attest. Dating apps are a plague, every week there seems to be a new term for bad behavior (“ghosting,” “breadcrumbing,” whatever), work demands more and more of our time, leaving less and less for love, and a constantly destabilized economy leaves us anxious and stressed even if we do happen to have stable work. Abortion is now illegal in a huge chunk of the country, and homophobic and transphobic violence — not to mention actual bans on trans healthcare and drag — are on the rise. And even if you do make it to coupledom and want to have children, our country still has precisely no support for working parents. The material basis on which you might have thought you’d be able to build a life is crumbling.
If there’s one thing we can learn from Marxists in this moment, it’s that material circumstances matter — even when it comes to romance. Gramsci wasn’t exactly sitting in his prison cell dishing out relationship advice — he was trying to analyze the world that had locked him up, the capitalist system he was trying to bring down, and its effects on human life. But in “Americanism and Fordism,” one of the many pieces collected in the most commonly published English translation of those Prison Notebooks, he did turn his gaze to sexuality and relationships in order to explain how those relationships were created and coerced by industrial capitalism.
In this, he built on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published half a century earlier by Marx’s best friend, editor and frequent coauthor Friedrich Engels. Engels had a rather unconventional romantic life himself. While outwardly maintaining his bourgeois lifestyle, he never married and instead secretly cohabitated with his working-class lover, Mary Burns (an Irish radical who deeply influenced his work); and after Mary died, with her sister Lizzie. In this book, he built on notes left by Marx and attempted to write a historical materialist critique of the Victorian family — an ultra-patriarchal household designed to consolidate and hand down wealth and police women’s behavior, or in other words, a more tightly controlled version of the nuclear family we still have.
What both Gramsci and Engels point out (the latter at considerable length) is that the family form they had been raised to think of as normal was, in fact, a recent invention, created with some degree of coercion and molded into “common sense,” a term Gramsci used for the kinds of popular beliefs that shape our world, even when they’re wrong. (He counterposed it to “good sense,” a more accurate understanding of the forces at play in the world.) Heterosexuality, as it existed in both men’s lifetimes, was a particular construct of industrial capitalism, designed to suit the needs of factory employers rather than to make people happy. A wife at home to do the cooking, cleaning and caring sent workers off to the factory better rested and ready for another day of work. Such “reproductive labor,” the Wages for Housework movement, decades later, would note, makes husbands’ work possible.
A century’s worth of Marxist-feminists have built this understanding into theories of housework, caring labor, emotional labor and much more. They were often part of social movements demanding radical changes to the law to accommodate vastly different understandings of love, marriage and gender, aware that the ways we are allowed to be and build lives together have a real effect on our material well-being. And in turn, our material well-being has a lot to do with how good our relationships (romantic or otherwise) are able to be. In this, I think, there’s something to be gleaned from these two writers that might help us navigate this moment and imagine a better framework for love than the one that’s been handed down to us from patriarchs past.
The reason I returned to Engels and Gramsci this Valentine’s Day is that while this holiday is, like the nuclear family, a construct of a particular kind of capitalism, it is a time of year where romance is inescapable, and yet many of us wind up feeling like we’re doing it wrong. In this moment, with more options for what shape relationships might take than ever before, with fewer and fewer people opting for the nuclear family form, especially among the working class, there’s still plenty of social pressure to be coupled. Just look at the increasingly frantic genre of romance reality TV (a friend of mine referred to England’s Love Island as “Heterosexuality Gulag” and he’s not wrong).
While I wouldn’t recommend reading Engels for a perfectly accurate history of the development of the modern family, what he does do is connect the couple form and gender roles to developments in the economy. In other words, the form of couple we’re told is a natural way to experience love actually developed in order to consolidate wealth, and evolved alongside the institution of private property. (For a modern-day and brilliant expansion on this topic, I recommend Melinda Cooper.)
Engels drew upon anthropological research among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in North America to note how the Victorian family was but one of many options, and that the modern family had, as it were, undergone an enclosure, consolidating control in the hands of a patriarch. The origin of monogamy, he writes, had very little to do with “the sexual love of the individual in the modern sense”; indeed, most men had no intention of staying faithful, only of keeping their wives so. Monogamy was in no way the highest form of love, but rather a form of antagonism. After all, if it was simply a matter of evolution, Engels joked, “then the palm belongs to the tapeworm that carries a complete male and female sexual apparatus in each of its 50 to 200 sections and passes its whole lifetime in fertilizing itself in every one of its sections.”
Rather than being natural, Engels argued, monogamy was formed based on economic conditions: the need to pass down property. This meant that the working classes actually had a better opportunity to find real love, in his view, because they had no property to pass down. So naturally, in order to keep the working classes in order, they had to be brought into this form of the family.
Enter Henry Ford, and Gramsci’s take on him.
Gramsci, like Engels, found sex a worthwhile subject of inquiry, and was particularly interested in the attempts to control and harness its power. It was not just puritanism, he wrote, that made Ford so interested in the sex lives of his workers that he sent inspectors into their homes to make sure they were properly heterosexually coupled. Increasingly rationalized, Taylorized factory work required, Gramsci wrote, “a rigorous discipline of the sexual instincts,” and “regulation and stability of sexual relations.” Ford was willing to pay higher wages, but had to ensure that the workers wouldn’t spend their extra money on booze and women. Rather, the implication seemed, they should be putting that money into property that they could pass down through their families.
We should probably note at this juncture that Gramsci had a rather prudish take on these issues — he wasn’t entirely disapproving of Ford’s methods. Certainly he, unlike Engels, did not write glowingly of the need to liberate love from the demands of industrial capital. But he too was clear: “the new industrialism wants monogamy” because the “exaltation of passion cannot be reconciled with the timed movements of productive motions connected with the most perfected automatism.” For the working classes, both Engels and Gramsci stress, freedom is only the freedom to sell their time for a wage; freedom when it comes to relationships and marriage follows the same logic. Civil law, Engels wrote, might hold that marriage is a free contract between men and women, but the reality is as unequal as the relationship between a worker and her employer. This still holds up today: women still make less money, and during the pandemic we saw large numbers of women leaving the workforce due to caring responsibilities. And the #MeToo movement reminds us of the unequal threat faced by women who might want to have relationships, romantic or otherwise, with men.
Common sense says we’re all equal now; good sense includes the realities of still-existing power relations.
The solution, wrote Engels (and echoed by generations of liberal and radical feminists after him), is to “remove the economic considerations that now force women to submit to the customary disloyalty of men, and you will place women on equal footing with men.” Of course, what he meant was full communism, but he was also interested in “a more unconventional intercourse of the sexes” and the end of what we might now call slut-shaming.
It’s worth noting that these relations are not described along a gender binary because that’s what people recognized in Engels’s time, but rather that these relations are what created our ideas of men and women in the first place. Material circumstances led to dividing people along purportedly biological lines in order to control reproduction, and built an entire mountain of common sense about gender on top of that seemingly simple division.
But as the material relations that upheld and coerced binary gender collapse, so too does binary gender and sexuality. Without jobs that pay a family wage, women are pushed into the workplace; when that set of tectonic plates shifts, so too does everything built upon it. The nuclear family might have seemed like a decent deal for which to trade other forms of freedom when its promise of economic stability held up, but when that stability is gone, the sacrifices the nuclear family requires no longer look terribly attractive. Binary gender very much among them.
This is not to say that adherents to the power relations that built those genders and sexualities aren’t going to do everything they possibly can to try to maintain those hierarchies. The mountain of dating shows are in this instance probably the most benign attempt at maintaining what Gramsci called “hegemony.” Education scholar and organizer Eleni Schirmer explains his concept like this: “the continuous arranging of the pieces of the world — the ideas, images, language, culture, politics, music, sexual norms, everything—in such a way that they affirm existing power relations.” It is dating shows, but it is also the bans on trans kids in sports, the attacks on trans healthcare, the panic over drag. It is the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the threat to overturn the court decisions that uphold gay marriage. It is violence against trans people for simply existing. It is the painting of everything outside of monogamous, married heterosexuality as a threat, even if the thing that has undermined marriage the most isn’t radical queers (unfortunately) but the crappy economy.
The reality is that even if most working people wanted to live in the kind of family that the right wing tells us is the correct one, we can’t afford to.
I hear you saying, “But Sarah, you promised us dating advice. What does all this teach us about today’s relationships?” Aside from the fact that the rise of work-from-home post-Covid has brought with it the return of employers snooping in our homes, today we’re in a decidedly different point on the clock of capitalism. We’re in a distinct interregnum, crawling out from under the weight of compulsory heterosexuality and exploring all sorts of different ways to live and love. And yet we’re still miserable and lonely a lot of the time.
We currently don’t have the same relations of economic inequality as in Engels’ time (and in some ways it’s gotten worse). It has not been an improvement to make women the breadwinners more often, to destroy traditionally male forms of employment, to make formerly secure forms of work more precarious while still keeping to a work week designed for that Ford worker with a wife at home. But that doesn’t mean we want to go backward, nor should it, tradwives and incels be damned. The fact that people have managed to salvage from the collapse of the old regime new forms of joy and love and intimacy (and always did experiment from within it, as Saidiya Hartman reminds us) is a miracle considering all we’re contending with.
Our struggles with love are profoundly political. If the old industrial labor wanted monogamy, neoliberalism (even in its zombie phase) wants us alone and constantly overwhelmed with choices. Housing insecurity both compels people into cohabitation and encourages them to stay when things go to hell (and so does employer-based health insurance), but stagnant wages and rising costs mean increased strain on those same relationships. It’s not an accident that dating apps and gig-work apps arose together and use similar interfaces and tools to keep us swiping, always hoping there’ll be something better a tap away. Dating apps are the gig work of romance, where we are both worker and product. The skills and lifestyles of today’s networked, job-hopping worker, in the low- or mid-wage economy, are colossally unsuited to healthy relationships.
The old form is dying, but its death throes are lingering, and those morbid symptoms are everywhere. Heterosexuality is broken, but just opting out of it isn’t actually an option because the strains on relationships are everywhere — they exist for queer couples and throuples and casual flings too. Despite what the TERFs would have us think, it’s just not all men’s fault — the violence of a capitalist world takes many forms, and shifting power relations mean that women have new opportunities, including new opportunities to be brutal ourselves. Engels might be right, that the full freedom of relationships based on “mutual fondness” will only be possible after the abolition of capitalist property relations, but that’s not terribly helpful for those of us who are lonely right now.
Dating in the interregnum sucks, and neither I nor a couple of dead communist thinkers can fix that for you, but a good starting place is to recognize that things have not always been the way they are. They can change if we organize to change them — to improve our working conditions, but also to protect trans kids and drag story hours and abortion access and everything that gives us a glimpse of what freedom might look like.
Who knows, you might meet someone(s) along the way.
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.