Romantic love: an agent of change?

What is love? On the one hand, it's a lucrative industry, bound up in 21st century hyper-capitalism. But openDemocracy's new section Transformation aims to reclaim love as a positive force for social change. 

Niki Seth-Smith
1 July 2013

Last year, I had a revelation in a superclub. I looked around at the hundreds of women dancing to Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl (In the World)’. For a moment, the music seemed to transfigure them – seen through the logic of the song, each woman appeared privately absorbed in her desire to eclipse the rest. Only I exist for you; you are the affirmation of my unique supremacy.


Rihanna. Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

It’s only a song, for sure. But there was also an underlying truth: this was romantic individualism at its nadir, where love meets 21st century hyper-capitalism.

In recent years, there has been a move to re-instate love as a positive force to help deliver social progress. The movement is far more developed in the USA than in Britain, but openDemocracy is endeavouring to help introduce the concept to a global audience through their new section, Transformation. The section promises to explore the links between personal and social change, under the tagline ‘Where love meets social justice’.

What kind of love are they talking about? Editor Mike Edwards frames the emotion as antithetical to the selfish drives of the market: "Love flourishes more easily when new institutions are built on sharing and solidarity instead of the mindless pursuit of competition, growth and power." Of the four Greek conceptions, his seems closest to philia, a dispassionate virtuous love that encompasses friends, family and community (the Aristotelian concept could be expanded to embrace the planet and non-human life). There’s no doubt that this form of love is an intrinsic challenge to homo economicus, the rational, self-interested actor invoked to legitimize the model of our unjust economy.

But what about the love in the Rihanna song? That kind of love is red in tooth and claw, exactly compatible, if not identical, with the "mindless pursuit" of competition and power. Which comes closest to love as most of us experience it today?

"What is love?" was Google’s most popular search question in 2012. So what does the search engine throw up today? An Independent article says it’s a “temporary insanity driven by the hormones”, a counsellor for anxiety tells me not to worry if I can’t find “the one”, my soundtrack is Haddaway’s 90s Eurodance hit, while The Guardian lists answers from (in order) a physicist, a psychotherapist, a philosopher, a romantic novelist, and a nun.

The algorithm is skewed, of course. Companies pay good money to be in the top Google rankings. But perhaps this isn’t an unfair reflection: love is a lucrative industry, online or off. I'm talking about romantic/erotic love, the dominant form of love for the modern subject (the nun is the exception that proves the rule).

How did we get here? The history of romantic love is bound up with that of bourgeois individualization; a fairly recent idea. The 17th and 18th centuries brought the neo-classical assumption of the individual’s subordination to society into question. Instead, the Romantic position held that God resides in the soul of every human. Each individual, therefore, has supreme value. As the recognition of the sacred in another, romantic love could override the institution of marriage and its value systems built around kindred loyalty, social stability and economic security. This was ‘social transformation through love’, defined by the movement away from the marriage of convenience. It was a bitter struggle, fought over generations.

It’s hard to think back to that struggle today. Now the happily married couple is more often painted as an enemy of change, a regressive and debilitating influence. Even Hollywood, factory of romance, increasingly portrays the institutions of marriage, family, and the couple as stuffy, restrictive and necessarily dysfunctional. Look at the Rom Coms of recent years. No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits (their names say it all) were practically identical blockbusters in 2011, whilst the Owen Wilson vehicle Hall Pass, where two husbands are given a week to ‘play away’, had the same plot as Sundance hit The Freebie (2010). As I write, I Give It a Year is playing, which poses the question: what happens after the credits roll?

What these films have in common is their deviance from the generic ‘love plot’. We all recognise the plot. Described by the cultural theorist Lauren Berlant, this is where "a story about love's engendering in individual persons ends with marriage or something promising it, and with the presumption of reproductive acts to come, spawning future generations or sequels". From Pride and Prejudice to Bridget Jones, Some Like It Hot to Beauty and the Beast, the promise of rebellion and difference collapses into conformity.

Love, first experienced as a liberating act of transcendence, is reabsorbed by and reaffirms the social structures it first appeared to escape. Films like 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, where the presence of a man temporarily disrupts a two-mother middle-class family, invert the plot but present the same resolution: a return to socially acceptable functionality. Plot mirrors life; life mirrors plot. In Britain, the recent demands for same-sex marriage legislation can be seen as a claim by members of the queer community for right of entrance into the same 'love plot'. As such, it has been criticized from elsewhere in the LGBT community for its implicit acceptance of the rewards attached to registering one's (two-person) love with the state.

For love to be a force for social transformation, it would seem that we would have to throw away this tired script. Romantic individualism and its promise of liberation has soured - co-opted to prop up the structures of the state, modelled to the likeness of a competitive consumerism that compels every one of us to possess the perfect love, the Only Girl/Boy in the World.

But if we are to ditch romantic individualism, what are we left with? Ever since Plato posited that lust for a lover could ascend into love for “the vast sea of the fine”, philosophers have struggled with how to transform passion between two people into the abundant forms of love for humanity, the common and the divine.

One recent theory of love is proposed by the American-Italian double act Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. In their book Commonwealth they argue that love must be rescued from the “corrupting” hands of the state. It was right to scrap the marriage of convenience, but we shouldn’t have stopped there. Marriage itself, along with the family and the couple unit, must be done away with. Only then can we break the links between love and property that have prevented us from destroying today’s corrupt institutions and developing freely as a species.

The future offered by Hardt and Negri, of radical experimentation in diverse forms of love, is appealing for my generation. We are as bored of engagements as we are cynical of any ‘free love’ utopia, though we may be its children. But this possibility seems just as divorced from the needs and desires of the mass of people today as the Aristotelian concept of virtuous, dispassionate philia, or the 18th century faith in discovering the divine through the other. What if, in rejecting the old, we can find nothing new?

Take Hall Pass, for example. Of course, the two husbands don’t use their 'hall pass' as a key out of the corrupting restrictions of the marriage institution. There is some bungled sex (less than you’d think) and they return with grins and renewed vows. It’s more like a card loaded with ‘love credit’, with the highest value placed on the illusion of choice and self-gratification. The film tells us marriage isn’t sacred, but leaves nothing but self-worship in its place. I fear this future. The rejection of love’s social infrastructure may simply leave us with homo cupio, the model of self-interested desire.

I am glad that a movement is developing to reinstate love as an agent of change, and intrigued that openDemocracy is joining it. For the movement to be effective, I would urge an interrogation of romantic individualism and its manifestations in 21st century forms of love.

I would like to see an exploration of what might arise in its place. Love is an ambiguous force, with infinite capacities to hinder and harm. Any attempt to harness it for social and political transformation must understand this, first and foremost. In the words of Nestor Haddaway (and thanks to Google for this cultural insight): What is love? Baby don’t hurt me / Don’t hurt me no more. 

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