By Elleni Centime Zeleke,
My interlocutors seem angry and defensive about my claim that romantic love in north America is sinister. Let me respond to their anger with a few more points.
So, we think of ourselves in the West as having unique attributes, and we define ourselves through the exercise of our individual free will upon those unique attributes.
Indeed our idea of what it means to be free is to be a person who can exercise her free will so as to produce whatever outcome she desires. As a result, we think of alienation as the separation of our will from our creativity such that we cannot recognize ourselves in the things that we make.
But one of the things that I have been arguing is that this notion of the self has been historically produced, which is to say that what we imagine to be an individual is not common to all times and spaces.
On the other hand, the doubly free subject of capitalist social relations is a good way to conceptualize the newly formed modern subject that has free will. This is a subject that is free from social obligations and free to move about and sell their labour where ever they please. But in this sense then the doubly free subject has no corporate identity, instead he or she must rely entirely on his or her own wit and will power in order to survive.
But what we also know is that the doubly free subject is created by economic and social processes. Thus, through the process of establishing capitalist social relations you get new forms of freedom and new ways of being a person. But there is nothing inevitable or foreseen in the social processes that led to the establishment of capitalism in England, Western Europe and North America.
Thus one of the things that I have been arguing is that even as you have capitalism developing in the 3rd world at the same time as it develops in Europe, the creation of the doubly free subject was never complete in the 3rd world.
Indeed, typical of the 3rd world economy is that you have people labouring under a number of different social arrangements in order to make goods for the capitalist market but who have not been transformed by capitalism as such.
On the other-hand the transformation into modern individuals in NA is utterly complete. Thus in NA life is organized around the nuclear family, and the nuclear family assumes that two people out of their own free will can choose each other and so form a family. But the nuclear family is “the gendered family par excellence” (Oyewumi, Oyeronke 2002). It consists of husband and wife who are defined by their gender and sexuality rather than a corporate identity derived from the community. But as such the nuclear family operationalizes and takes for granted the idea of being double free– it assumes a certain historically specific institution related to modernity as its base and its ideal.
On the other hand in the 3rd world people make a living in the informal economy, or through combinations of wage labouring with farming that over laps with remittances and migration. The point is that as capitalism travelled around the world it needed a much smaller labour force when it expanded industrialization (Bernstein, Henry 2004). Thus capitalism promotes a world proletariat but cannot accommodate a generalized living wage (Bernstein, Henry 2004). Reproduction happens under insecure and oppressive conditions, and most often in the informal sector. Here kinship structures, and lineage systems become modernized and adapted to urban spaces and even trans-national spaces as a means to survival (Cooper, Fredrick 2001).
Now, as we have been saying westernized folks tend to take the nuclear family for granted and they define freedom as being doubly free. This produces a number of conceptual problems: 1) It assumes the individual is the bases for organizing society, 2) even when western feminists produce critiques of the family it is based on the fact that in the context of the nuclear family women are subordinated, 3)produces a universal feminist project based on the fact that the nuclear family is universally oppressive, therefore all women must be oppressed, 4)advocates a liberated form of romantic love where the doubly free subject is granted freedom such that he or she can have the kind of the free choice that is exercised between two doubly free subjects.
But what we know is that in real life the nuclear family was never really instituted outside of western Europe and NA. And as I have been arguing a lot of this has to do with the fact that well paid, regular, and routinized wage labour was never commonly available outside of the West and still is not.
On the other hand, what we also know is that under these oppressive economic and historical conditions 3rd world nationalism often calls upon supposedly primordial identities as a way to construct feelings of belonging. Race is often used in this way but ideas of what it means to be a woman is also mobilized in this regard. Indeed, one of the things that is common to the formerly colonized countries is how the modern nation-state mobilizes “invented tradition” as a way to give people a sense of identity and belonging, for example, Tutsi vs Hutu, etc. But in many ways Tutsi and Hutu are entirely modern identities even if formally they are based on a pre-colonial past. This is because the fixing of customary law and ethnic affiliations are actually based on the invented colonial law that was administered through native authorities and native courts (Mamdani, Mahmood 1996).
So one of the things we need to be vigilant about is how so called traditional identities get used to foster a contemporary sense of identity, i.e. a sense of what it means to be African or Indian or whatever, and yet these traditions really have no historical base.
That said we also need to be cognizant of the multiple ways that colonialism and nationalism coupled with the more general transition to capitalist property relations in the colonies has not only transformed the nature of the family, kinship ties and lineage systems, it has also entrenched patriarchal rule.
Here we see that gender does not simply shape a person’s life; rather gender itself is produced and reworked through changes to the governing structures of social and economic conditions. But more importantly, gender is a concept that is increasingly fought over and contested as a means through which people can both shape their own lives but also satisfy certain interests.
For example, the West gazes upon the colonial subject and then claims that the way the colonized subject loves or the way he treats women is backward (and it is always a he that is being addressed in that gaze, after all “the women” are too veiled or too passive and cannot be addressed). But what follows from this is that the West makes policies to reform the backward subject, and as such codifies tradition on the one hand but also introduces new ways of being a man or a woman. Then the colonial subject internalize those ideas of what it means to be both traditional, as well as a modern man or a woman, but since these modes of being can never match up to European expectations, precisely because social relations are organized differently than under fully formed capitalist social relations in the West, the colonial subject still gets called barbaric and backward. But now the colonial subject holds on to the new definition of manhood inherited from the codification of tradition, and says no, look, I am not backwards, but he does this at the expense of making himself more static and more fixed.
How to solve this conundrum? Well, here, the question of hope or liberty clearly is not about individualizing the subject in the vein of fortifying a miniature homo economicus. Rather, the question is how can we take on our already existing collective projects at the level of the nation and also at the level of the transnational. Now, of course the future cannot be predicted, but at least we can say that in this scenario love is established through becoming companions in struggle and supporting the other in the freedom to find a form for that struggle. But here, what we also witness is that love is a sediment that arises from knowing that history and our collective formations are the condition from which to reach out to someone.
This kind of companionship is exactly the opposite of what is encouraged by the doubly free subject. After all romantic coupledom as it is practised in the West is the expression of a doubly free subject, but that expression is the privilege of the richest group of people in the international division of labour. It simply is not available to most people.
On other hand, my interlocutors seem to think that romantic love might give them hope for what ultimately is a dissatisfied existence in the advanced capitalist countries, but as Walter Benjamin has warned, “hope is for the hopeless”. In the end romantic love in North America is about disavowal and retreat from the world, because people are privileged enough to do just that. It is the longing for ahistorical stasis, and a frozen image of reality. Marx also called this animality.
Back in 1844 Marx also knew that freedom as it is expressed by the doubly free subject was the ultimate form of alienation. In opposition to the modern subject he wrote “suffering humanely conceived is the enjoyment of self for man.” I urge my friends that are so firmly committed to romantic love to enter the circle of suffering with their fellow human-beings. My interlocutors might find that they will finally enjoy being in the world so much more.