Love and desire in a time of hopelessness

Article @ Open Democracy, published 14 February 2020

The last time someone kissed me without the exclusive intent of it leading to sex was in August 2019. On the 29th to be exact.

I had gone for a brief drink with someone I had recently met. We both had evening engagements and we kissed as we parted. The sole purpose of the drink and the kiss was to indulge in the sheer pleasure of each other’s company. The purpose was, one could say, romance.

I haven’t experienced any kind of romance since, and even casual sex has been a non-occurrence in the past few months. I note with sadness how much I yearn for intimacy and affection that goes beyond the platonic. I am also horny.

A few years ago, when I was still in my 20s, my sexual and emotional interactions were more often than not punctuated by a degree (even if performative) of tenderness. Dinner or cinema dates were still a thing, people would text back with a modicum of speediness, ghosting and breadcrumbing had just started becoming the phenomena we know and hate today. Things fizzled and hearts were broken – those things are part of human condition – but the pot of emotional resources never felt so meagre that a kiss was synonymous with foreplay.

The task of managing our relationships with other human beings did not only feel worthwhile if in exchange for something (sex, money, shelter). Those transactions have existed for millennia, of course, but that is why sex work is work, emotional labour is labour. The idea that all human interaction, especially human interaction relating to love and desire, must limit itself to a bartering exercise is not only a travesty, but indeed the apogee of our economic system. That’s right, for my feelings of frustration and pent up energy I can only blame one thing: capitalism.

And while my own story is only anecdotal, you don’t need to look far to find examples of this social emergency. This week’s London edition of Time Out magazine decided to dedicate its centre-spread to Londoners’ “most important relationship”: the one with their flatmates. Unironically, the magazine features four sets of cohabitants, aged between 28 and 61, surviving the capital’s barbarous housing market.

Two young women in Hammersmith tell us about a previous landlord that locked up the boiler so they couldn’t turn on the heating. A 30 year-old man from Croydon recounts how he subsists on takeaways because of how long his working hours are. An asylum seeker in Barnet relies on his hosts for shelter, since his application does not yet allow him to work and earn money. All credit their flatmates for pulling them through hard times, but no comment is made by either reporter or interviewees about a system that left them this vulnerable. The solidarity between these humans is conditional, brought out of a shared experience of survival. These flatmates aren’t more important than “pals and partners”, as the article’s blurb suggests. They are simply all that is left with a semblance of care and human affection within the logic of exploitation.

With London rents rising at twice the speed of homes everywhere else – in a city where the average rent already costs £2,119 per calendar month – this hostage situation is likely to continue. And our misreading of kindred bondage for friendship and devotion is too.

Under capitalism women feel the turning of the screw first. In an economy where, despite its ill health, the system remains the same or even worsens, it is women who rapidly experience and express the consequences thereof. Kristen R. Ghodsee’s ‘Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism’ was a massive success when it first came out as an essay in the The New York Times in 2017. The book not only had a more assertive title, replacing the verb from the past into the present tense, but also talks very little about sex. In its list of contents alone the words “capitalism”, “work”, and “exploitation” dominate. The word “sex” features twice.

That’s in part because the reason why women had better sex under socialism was not because those Bolsheviks were better at fingering. At the root of their happier lives, as ever, lay financial freedom. Recounting how East German women were happier than West German women, Ghodsee notes: “(…) East Germans created a situations in which women were no longer dependent on men, giving them a sense of autonomy that encouraged more generous male behaviour in the bedroom.”

Women in the West were often, even when working, too financially dependent on men to demand ‘better head, or else’. In fact, when in 1984 Kurt Stark and Walter Friedrich asked people under 30 in the GDR how satisfied they were with their sex lives over 65% of women eagerly remarked that they “almost always” reached orgasm. In contrast, a 2018 report by Public Health England found that nearly 50% of women aged between 25 and 34 were unhappy with their sex lives.

In my mid 20s I saw my partners and my peers struggle with precarious employment and low pay, but the belief in opportunities lying ahead had not yet fully vanished. Plus, we couldn’t afford lavish restaurants or expensive holidays, but we could still afford to fall in love with the wrong person, because, we thought, we would always manage on our own later on. But as we reached our early 30s we continued to see the demolishing of our welfare state and with it the services that, in the back of our heads, provided some peace of mind. You don’t want to think of being alone and becoming unemployed, or ill, when you’ve heard of so many dying after being denied the benefits they were rightly entitled to. You don’t want to think of being alone when getting pregnant when you’ve heard of NHS services being cut and children’s centres being closed down.

Ten years of Conservative governments have seen many accept social injustice and deprivation as the new normal. They have also pushed us further into individual isolation, while removing the social infrastructures we could once depend on to ‘make it on our own’ out there. We stick to bad relationships as much as we stick to no relationship at all. It’s easier to hop from bed to bed, to kiss only as foreplay, than allow ourselves the hope that something extraordinary could happen, only to then be denied its flourishing by 12 hour shifts, vampiric landlords, and poverty. Especially if we’ll have to lick our wounds in a world already so devoid of networks of support.

But the need for love and human connection is now – even more so than in the last depressing decade – of paramount importance. For many, perhaps even for some that voted them in, the Tories’ resounding electoral victory last December felt like the sudden execution of our incipient hopes for social justice, for fairer government, for an improvement in living conditions across the country. Elsewhere, across the globe, mine and younger generations are plagued by a feeling of destitution as we witness the destruction of our planet, the suppression of freedom of speech, and struggles for democracy quashed with brutal force. One could not fault us for our nihilism and our hopelessness.

But it is precisely for that reason that love and desire must be rescued from the claws of capitalist logic, from the growing acceptance that affection comes at too high a prince, or that indeed it has a price at all. Why we must demand the right to be happy, happy now. And since these demands cannot exist in isolation – who can be truly happy when sleeping in a mouldy broom-closet and commuting three hours a day to a minimum wage job? – they must be part and parcel of whatever progressive political project we rescue from the ashes of what died in December.

We have the right to fuck without fear, the right to fall out of love without the risk of homelessness, the right not to marry our partner of 30 years without the risk of dying and leaving them penniless, the right to have a baby on one’s own (or even with others) without falling into a spiral of debt and in-work poverty. We have the right to come together often, for pleasure and companionship rather than for work and survival, without it being seen as futile or unproductive. We have the right to love and desire as part of progressive praxis, against the logic of capital accumulation, against the hegemonic view of humans as tools for labour and value extraction.

A political project that fails to include these demands within its manifesto is a political project that is yet to grasp the challenges facing us in this coming decade.