Love in a time of neo-liberalism

In the harsh world of neo-liberalism, the word 'love' has become so devalued it would be better simply not to use it.

"The emotional barrenness of neo-liberalism is one of its harshest characteristics." Credit: Shutterstock

In Love’s Work, her last and remarkable book, the philosopher Gillian Rose spoke of the world of modernity as a time in which we are "infinitely sentimental about ourselves, but methodically ruthless towards others."

One way in which we vindicate this sentimentality is arguably our misuse of the word ‘love’, now so banded about as to have become as meaningless as the kisses on the emails between strangers.

Conventional accounts of neo-liberalism, and indeed the market economy, all portray the ideal citizen of these worlds as autonomous, self-defining and independent: the kind of person who stands on their own feet, looks after themselves and does not expect others to take care of him or her. Given the human condition, this person is a nonsense: we all need care from birth, through youth and the years of work and parenthood and into old age. But providing this care is a matter of intense political debate: those who would diminish the responsibilities of the state are very eager to pass to individuals many, if not all, aspects of care.

In this, ideas about ‘love’ inevitably become both confused and confusing, not least because in those situations of sickness rather than health, quite what individuals are supposed to do, would like to do and have to do, become entangled. Marriage in the UK is generally contracted through two kinds of contract: a romantic contract which individuals make for themselves and the contract which religion and the state impose upon them, a contract of mutual support and responsibility.

However, into this marriage between two rather different aspects of the world – quite as different as the partners in any marriage might be – comes a third partner, that set of neo-liberal expectations which essentially endorses an every-person-for-themselves view of the world.

At the same time, romance has lost many of its earlier constituents of courtship, reconciliation and negotiation (all ordinary possibilities of the progress of love in most English canonical fiction of much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century) and become a form of self gratification, a choice as powered by individual taste and inclination as, let us say, individual taste for ice-cream or new shoes. At its worst, what individuals think of as love has become another form of consumption: when it wears out, it's perfectly acceptable to find something else.

This attitude towards love is not, it has to be said, necessarily the view of everyone and many people still regard love as the beginning of a shared life, with all the expectations of having to learn things (and put up with things) that have always been evident.

So this is not an argument about the meaning of love today as opposed to attitudes that might (or might not) have existed in the past; we shall never know how much people loved each other (or did not) in the past. But what we do know, as certainty and fact, is that the policies of neo-liberalism are making it almost impossible to do some of the things that various aspects of love involves.

For example, many people might want to care for a dependant partner or child or friend but doing this would be largely unsupported by meaningful state support. The word 'meaningful' is important here: this does not include those benefits to carers which involve choices between heat or food or transport or anything else.

In the harsh world of neo-liberalism, where the emotional need to care and to be cared for is hardly catered for, many people turn to the artificial cream on the hard neo-liberal cake: the cream of celebrity culture. In a context that reifies paid work, getting money and being independent, the value of altruistic work has largely been marginalised, despite evidence that demonstrates that for many people altruistic work is the work which they most value and enjoy.

The emotional barrenness of neo-liberalism is one of its harshest characteristics; the compensation which this world offers is a daily diet of participation in various forms of voyeuristic spectacles about the emotional lives of others. These famous, and infamous others, offer a form of comfort, a reassurance that people are still falling in love, still making families and still, simply, having emotional lives.

That some of these lives are cold bloodedly constructed in order to sell films, further careers and maintain public profiles is seldom apparent: what we are given is a globally available (and faster moving than any soap drama) parade of emotions about love, emotions which are often then related to consumerist fantasies of transformation. Couples with high media profiles split up, ‘get together’, bounce on sofas to express their new found love or subsequently ‘go alone’ in order to demonstrate what should not need demonstrating, that human beings can both gain and lose love.

In this melee of who loves who, an expression from the late nineteenth century about homosexuality – the ‘love that dare not speak its name' – seems apt, albeit in a very different context. It is very difficult to avoid the baggage that the word ‘love’ currently carries with it.

Perhaps not using the word, not invoking it, not wanting it to be said, might make the appearance and the reality of strong ties of affection and responsibility more likely. In a world when text messages and goods from mail order come ‘with love’, perhaps the absence of the word is a better indication of its presence.

The English language is rich in words that express positive feelings towards others: respect, admiration, affection, liking and delight. Just thinking of all these possibilities allows us to consider many splendours, and takes us away from one impoverished and abused word.

About the author

Mary Evans is currently a Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics, based in the Gender Institute. She has written widely on feminism and aspects of women’s writing, including books on Jane Austen and Simone de Beauvoir. At present she is working on a study on the continuity of gender inequality.