Erotic capital: love and sex in the neoliberal age

First, let us remember what the political philosopher, Karl Marx, said (synthesized; he’s long-winded, like most Victorians) in the Communist Manifesto about capitalism: “It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless and feasible freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, exploitation, veiled by illusions: naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

What would a society look like in which everyone exploited the other for pleasure? It would look like a place inhabited by emotional cannibals and mechanized zombies. People would stuff themselves silly with mindless physical pleasures, without feeding that human necessity for survival which is self-fulfillment through creative and imaginative work and empathy with others. It would mean investing as little as personally possible in others in order to gain the greatest possible returns from the interaction.

In contemporary capitalism, the impulse to exploit—to abuse and profit from everything and everyone—is unconscious and internalized. In fact, exploitation is regarded as a form of self-preservation. If we don’t exploit others, we fear, we will be exploited. This vice is even morally justified by the pernicious cliché’ that human nature is “red in tooth and claw”—which, if it were true, is a law that would have supervised human extinction at the Cro-Magnon stage of human evolution. Today, in our industrial stage of social degradation, others don’t exist, except as commodities—as raw materials for the use of the self. That is why we are devolving; that is why we cannot connect; that is why, in the malevolently triumphant words of the execrable Margaret Thatcher, “There is no such thing as society.”

There are only individuals—scared, alone, and dangerously adrift.

The idea of surviving by exploiting is not conscious; it is no more conscious than instinctively withdrawing the hand from the singeing of a flame. It is how our social unconscious is shaped by the ideology of the marketplace, which, unless we are kept in a darkened closet on Mars from birth, we cannot avoid breathing in like oxygen and breathing out like carbon dioxide. We poison the air as the noxious air poisons our minds. By the time we become aware that something evil and self-destructive resides at the heart of our being and eats at us from the inside out, it is too late to do anything about it. If we can’t lick it, we say, join it. We become part of the problem that has crippled our ability to be fully human, and, fatally, we diminish the humanity of others.

And so what goes ‘round comes ‘round. Shit continues to happen as the “human” absents itself from “relations,” reflecting the economic model of cycles of boom and bust. In short, we can neither love nor be loved. So we go quietly, silently, irretrievably mad. And since everyone around us is equally crippled in spirit, we don’t know what in the world is wrong with us: why can’t we be happy?

What triggers these excessively gloomy reflections? Personally, from the vantage point of my advanced age, I regard the emotional dealings of younger humans as taking place in a frenetic and frenzied stock exchange of “great expectations” (apart from Charles Dickens before him, the film director Michelangelo Antonioni had already fully realized this metaphor in his 1963 film, “The Eclipse”). They are coupling and uncoupling with the insatiable greed of venture capitalists. They marry and beget; they separate and survey; they trawl and reinvest; they accumulate and disperse. Love, like money, is constantly on the move. Its currency is sex. As nothing is more alien to love than money, the currency goes bankrupt in a matter of hours, days, weeks, months—when lucky.

What, then, remains of hope for the future from our relationally dysfunctional age? What always comes from suffering: wisdom. William Wordsworth, for all his compromises and self-betrayals in old age, said it rather well, if perhaps too personally and in a tone of defeat:

What though the radiance
which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass,
of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

Luciana Bohne teaches at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, one of 14 public universities threatened by another 20 percent budget cut in education by Republican Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at lbohne@edinboro.edu.

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