German economist Karl Marx is best known for his critiques of capitalism, not his assessments of love — he offered no labour theory of love, just a labour theory of value.
However, Marx’s critiques were deeply rooted in the impact capitalism had on the human condition. He suggested that capitalist society turned individuals into cogs in a machine, living only to serve the economic structure in which they resided and, in the process, lost much of their own self — becoming “alien” to their true nature.
This sentiment is summed up well by Ewan Macgregor’s opening monologue in the film Trainspotting: “Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home…”
Highlighted here is the fact that much of “life” in a capitalist society is centred around the rat race of career growth and the material objects we can acquire along the way — of which many individuals derive their value and identity. Connecting with your inner self, family, nature and community plays little role in this conception of capitalism.
Does this social and economic structure that focuses so deeply on the material negatively impact our ability to love and connect with those closest to us?
Fellow German, Erich Fromm, a social philosopher, thought it did. In his 1956 book, the Art of Loving, Fromm spells out just how detrimental capitalism has been to our ability to love. He suggests that under capitalism, “Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling, or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of anxiety, insecurity and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome.”
If Fromm’s assessment is correct, how can we love when we have lost ourselves?
Nearly 65 years later, the world Fromm was writing about is very different. While capitalism still runs strong, the economy is very different. In 1956, much of Canada’s economy was resource-focused or driven by manufacturing. Today, the resource market is in transition and manufacturing has been offshored.
Like many developed countries, Canada’s is now considered a knowledge economy — we rely less on the production of physical goods and more on digital or “intangible” goods — think data, financial and web services and e-commerce.
How does this new economy and new version of capitalism affect how we live and love, compared to that which Fromm saw in the 1950s?
Speaking as a millennial, I would suggest that the alienation Marx and Fromm both lamented is even more present today, adding impediments to fully connecting with those closest to us, and ultimately making love more challenging.
Capitalism of today has led many millennials to be digitally distracted, accustomed to instant gratification and weighed down by an unfriendly global economy — each of these issues impacts our capacity to love and build relationships to some degree.
Much of the 21st century intangible economy mentioned above is accessible online through apps on our phones. For many millennials, much of their world exists on 5-some inches of glass and the more “connected” we are through our phones, the more disconnected we become from the physical world, the present and the people in front of us.
Look around any restaurant — I’m guessing you will see tables on tables of couples, necks cocked downwards towards their screens, oblivious to the person across from them. Perhaps when a dish arrives, they will perk up, snap a picture, and begin the process of sharing this to their online world.
The screen which many individuals live their lives through gives us dopamine on demand — small hits can be acquired through likes, swipes, and clicks. Today’s tech giants have made this so intentionally – a former executive at Facebook says the app was designed to “be as addictive as smoking.”
When we have quick access to a supply of “feelgood” chemicals, almost like Aldous Huxley’s soma, it is easy to get discouraged when our relationships don’t make us feel good all of the time. For some, the effort required to get a similar chemical reward through deeper emotional engagement is simply too much. Why put all that energy into building a connection when you can make a quick post and feel just as good?
In the age of digital distraction being present is probably the most important thing we can do to cultivate connection, build trust and incubate love. How can you be more present? When you’re with your loved ones, make eye contact, reflect their words back to them, empathize, ask questions, actively listen and PUT DOWN THAT PHONE.
One of the greatest things about 21st century capitalism is that it rewards those that can deliver on demand — dinner, movies, housewares, everything is available at the click of a button and could be at our door in mere hours. However, as a result, we are becoming wired for instant gratification and that’s not a good thing when it comes to love.
Media today tells a similar story. When we watch a couple fall madly in love on the Bachelor over a few weeks, perhaps we wonder why our relationships aren’t moving so fast, so effortlessly, so straight to the alter. Addiction to instant gratification and unrealistic expectations about love can be very damaging in relationships.
Paracelcus, a philosopher of the German Renaissance said, “Anyone who imagines that all fruits ripen at the same time as the strawberries knows nothing about grapes.” As we watch love unfold in media we need to remember, love doesn’t come at the click of a button, love cannot be commodified and, in many cases, takes time and patience to nurture – often, more time than we might imagine at the outset.
Here, to counter the compulsions for instant gratification capitalism provides it’s important to remain patient in our relationships. Real life is never like the movies and real love can’t be delivered on Prime Day – trust in the power of time.
Like everyone, millennials have expectations about where they should be in life at a particular time, and many have goals that include owning a home and starting a family. However, 21st century capitalism has stunted the financial potential of many millennials be it through suppressed wages, insurmountable student debt, or economic scarring from the Global Financial Crisis. Couple this with runaway real estate prices and many of these goals may seem out of reach, at least in the immediate.
Instead of giving up on the dream altogether, millennials should seek to grow together. Love isn’t all about shared accounts and mortgage payments, but at some point, it will at least be a part of it. Building a life together from the ground up can be very rewarding. We’ve all likely faced some sort of stunting if we entered the job market around 2009 or after and we owe it to each other to be patient and kind as we play a bit of catchup.
Capitalism has brought us immense progress over time but love in the age capitalism is hard and love in the age of 21st century capitalism just might be even harder. If you find capitalism alienating, take solace that you can counter some of these negatives.
First remember to be present, second be patient and give love time to grow, finally, recognizing that many of us have faced some early financial setbacks, be willing to grow with your partner. If Marx is right and capitalism makes us alien, with just a little bit of effort we can bring our capacity to love where it belongs, right back here to Earth.