Capitalism gave our fantasy a blank check but it stole our reality.
By Lynn Parramore
Love is older than capitalism. But the romantic variety, along with its peculiar pains, takes cultural center stage just as capitalism makes its debut. That’s no coincidence. Capitalism and romantic love have grown together, reinforcing and reflecting each other in ways that we hardly notice.
Our society’s organization has a lot to do with the way we understand our perceptions and experiences, including love. Depending on what values we emphasize and the way we imagine ourselves in relation to others, our expectations can bring us fulfillment or crash on the rocks of disappointment.
In the High Middle Ages, the tradition of courtly love among the nobility focused on a knight’s bond to his lady fair; a reflection of the relationship between vassal and lord. Reciprocity was a strong feature of this connection. Women like the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine, who could often both inherit and manage property in the feudal system, found that courtly love offered them a way to freely express sexual desires outside of the conventions of patriarchy. They could put chastity aside, along with the need for the legitimacy of children. Feudal values, based on a system of private jurisdictions, fed the possibility of love for both men and women outside the bounds of marriage.
The Renaissance turned things in a somewhat different direction. In the 16th century, bourgeois writers like Thomas More (a major figure in the court of Henry VIII), didn’t have much use for female sexuality and influence. They were preoccupied with the emergence of the mercantile and manufacturing economy, and under the early capitalist model, sexuality was to be regulated, religious devotion encouraged, and public life circumscribed. Instead of reciprocity, hierarchy was the primary structure of relationships between king and subject, man and woman, and, eventually, employer and employee. Patriarchal family values were restored. For women, love had to lead to marriage and it had better not stray beyond that boundary. (Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, famously got caught in the crosshairs of this shift.)
As the ideal of love as mutuality and reciprocity among men and women declined, love became, in the words of historian Joan Kelly, a “narcissistic experience.” It also reflected a general shift in the conception of the self. In his book, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Society, Anthony Giddens suggests that romantic love introduced the idea of a personal narrative, which is why it emerged along with the novel. Self-realization became the keynote of romantic love. As the Enlightenment loosened religious dominance, people turned to the inspiration of romance as a replacement for what had once been provided by religion. Romantic love became salvation.
By the 19th century, the decline in the belief in immortality sped the transformation in the way people saw themselves. If we don’t possess an immortal soul, then we have to elevate our sense of our temporary selves. If we can’t live forever, then we have to fulfill ourselves now. Our individual hopes and desires gain more significance. We don’t want to accept limits in our earthly life, and we are constantly reaching for more. Romantic love becomes the way we can expand, the place where we imagine ourselves heroic.
As capitalism matures, its emphasis on leaping toward the new and the original stands out. It thrives, as historian Joyce Appleby tells us, on “relentless revolution.” Novelty reigns supreme. The consumer is groomed for the ceaseless search for new sensations and new possibilities. Capitalism looks forward. It revels in future visions rather than reflection. As industrialization brings the demands of endless work, capitalism has to stimulate the desire for pleasure and consumption. The Puritan ethic of delayed gratification, based on the idea of scarcity, is pushed aside. Capitalism offers us the fantasy of abundance, where restraint is unnecessary.
Lasting love becomes constricting and banal. The bond of Ma and Pa Kettle, quietly sharing companionship on the front porch of the farm after decades of living, looks drab and uninspiring. Romantic love is not based on companionship, but on the feeling of being desired. This kind of love appears to give us the opportunity, just as money does, to constantly remake ourselves, to project new versions of our lives. It’s about longing, fleeting highs, the same stimulation we feel in buying a new car, a new wardrobe. As the married couple’s romantic attraction wanes, the need for stimulation is transferred to the next big purchase, the washing machine, the wide-screen TV. Capitalism goes humming along.
Until it doesn’t. The problem with capitalism is that it mostly pumps possibilites toward the top. The inequality it breeds results in the restriction of choices in so many areas of our lives – our work, our health, our retirement, even our love lives. We begin to see that capitalism gave our fantasy a blank check but it stole our reality.
Now, in its late stages, capitalism must offer more intense fantasies of romance to counterbalance the reality of those restrictions. As we become more insecure and uncertain, we reach more desperately to proof of the meaning of our existence. We want things we can touch and feel. The blockbuster pop romance, the Twilight series, starts out as a shy-girl-meets-boy story but builds toward a climactic orgy of material abundance as Bella and Edward frolic in the fantasy of endless supplies of helicopters, fancy homes, luxurious clothes, and exotic vacations (where do vampires invest?). This was carried even further by E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, who renamed the Twilight characters and set them down in high-tech Seattle, where Edward becomes the billionaire Christian Grey, whose quest for novel sensations captures the imagination of ingénue Anastasia. The dream of this diamond-studded romantic fulfilment promises to relieve us of our anxiety as we push aside the horror of our depleted savings, our pink-slip.
Capitalism and romantic love offer the ceaseless promise of escape to a better world over the rainbow. But a general sense of the lie inherent in that promise is growing. The system of promised rewards has broken down, and left us with too many broken hearts.