If there’s a theme to my recent essays it’s a bubbling-under sense of things not yet given full conscious form in the public square. The world is beginning to emerge from the pandemic, and the interleaved economic, social and psychological impacts are becoming more visible. But the other shoe has yet to drop.
In no particular order, since my last newsletter I’ve looked at the religious overtones to vaccine discourse, the way critiques of ‘junk food’ (really, critiques of industrial society) have migrated Rightwards, how the internet makes free speech both universal and impossible, and the asymmetric impacts of sexual libertarianism for both men and women.
But my longer-range thinking at the moment is mainly governed by the phrase ‘War on Relationships’: a sense that natural or spontaneous forms of human sociality as such are coming to be viewed as dangerous, polluting and even politically suspect.
Am I imagining this? Perhaps. But consider the N95 mask, now the most visible symbol of a new ethic in which social awareness is expressed not by social contact but by erecting barriers to social contact.
For the January edition of Spectator World, I looked at the asymmetric protocols that now surround masking, and especially the new hyperfocus on hygiene theatre among the ‘laptop class’, to argue that masking has served to unmask a new class hierarchy that’s been emerging since de-industrialisation began under Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s.
In turn, mapping mask rituals onto material economic shifts underlines the Thatcher/Reagan connection. For it isn’t precisely human sociality that’s under attack, so much as forms of human sociality that resist penetration by the market: the War on Relationships is a continuation of market liberalism by other means. In particular it’s a continuation of the overtly parasitic late-stage market liberalism that began with Thatcher and Reagan, and that feeds the furnace of economic growth with the everyday wellbeing of ordinary people, by extending the domain of freedom-under-commerce ever futher into our intimate lives. This is perhaps easiest to illustrate if we consider the most obviously advanced contemporary war on relationships - that is, the one on non-transactional sexual intimacy.
Up to the mid-twentieth century, this domain had been at least partly shielded from market forces, by social norms that aimed (however imperfectly) to confine sex within the institution of marriage. But the emergence of relatively reliable contraception ended the material incentive on women to restrict sexual access to trusted partners. In turn, this liquefying process both increased freedom and also the commercial potential of sex: the Pill and Playboy clubs appeared in the same year. So, too, did idealised visions of the market, alongside vociferous critiques of their negative impacts on women: the same year that Hayek was extolling the ‘spontaneous order’ of the market, Andrea Dworkin organised the first radical feminist march against the porn industry.
Dworkin fought the market, the market won. And the enclosure and monetisation of sex has only accelerated with our transition into digital culture. This penetration of intimacy by the digitised marketplace reached an advanced stage with the arrival in 2009 of Grindr, and 2012 of Tinder: respectively, gay-centred and straight-centred smartphone apps geared toward quick judgement of potential partners, seemingly optimised for transient hookups.
For just like Amazon or eBay, online dating profiles have an image and product description, digitising human intimacy as options that can be keyword-searched, browsed, selected, and consumed. Dating websites thus encourages us to view the search for love as just another marketplace. In other words, a Hayekian ideal of market-based ‘spontaneous order’ has become our governing metaphor even in the domain of sexual intimacy.
In this ‘marketplace’, online shopping and online dating at least theoretically diverge when we get to the ‘checkout’ stage. But even this distinction looks increasingly tenuous: the platform OnlyFans, for example, enables attractive ‘creators’ (in practice almost always hot young women) to simulate a long-distance girlfriend experience for lonely men, and to do so at scale for multiple men at at time. Secondary markets are now emerging for ghostwriters whose job is to reply, on behalf of popular OnlyFans creators, to the plaintive, lubricious or simply lonely direct messages sent (at a price) to their parasocial object of desire.
Nor is pay-per-view the only business model for marketised relationships. With the spread of ‘in-app purchases’ as a business model within digital products, this inventive young woman has opted to try and monetise her offline intimate life:
History doesn’t recount whether the recipient of these messages paid the $20 for a post-match report. But the exchange serves to illustrate how the market-liberal ethic of enclosing and monetisating stores of ‘value’ has burst what bounds we may once have set on it - and how digital marketplaces have set us free to do so. This ethic now has state backing: see for example the ICA’s current exhibition advocating for the decriminalisation of prostitution. It’s a reasonable and principled policy if you see no meaningful distinction between sex and the market.
So it’s not just a war in intimate relationships, waged against the idea of non-transactional intimacy and in favour of the monetisable kind. At least in the field of online dating, that war appears to have been fairly comprehensively won. It’s also a war on all those residual forms of sociality that still stand in the way of this market-individual worldview securing complete victory - a war that, over the pandemic, took increasingly official form.
Thus we saw churches locked and singing together banned. Public assembly was restricted, family gatherings forbidden, and free playgrounds closed. Meanwhile those forms of sociality that either make an economic contribution, or can be transferred to the online domain (where they become measurable, and make money at least for Big Tech) were permitted to continue.
The logical endpoint of this trajectory is the South Korean ‘Untact’ policy, that seeks as far as possible to eliminate human interaction from everyday life altogether via digital services and automation, with the aim of spurring productivity and thus economic growth.
The difficulty with pursuing such a strategy, of course, lies in the danger that humans are not in fact endlessly malleable: that we do, in fact, have a nature and that nature is instinctively social. This is something that people understand well enough in the case of animals: no one with a shred of compassion keeps a single member of a herd species such as horses without at least one other creature, even a goat or donkey, for company.
But since Simone de Beauvoir declared in 1949 in The Second Sex that ‘Nothing is natural’, those reactionary residues of natural affection are increasingly beleaguered, by an all-out ideological war that seeks to recast all such bonds as oppressive because particularistic and unchosen. Perhaps the cutting-edge expression of this idea is Sophie Lewis’ Full Surrogacy Now, which I reviewed for First Things recently, and which frames as a key feminist project the drive to reframe all gestation as work: to haul it, in other words, into the marketplace.
We might say of the slippage between liberal utopianism and actually existing neoliberalism that the latter is what you get when you try and apply the former but don’t, in fact, succeed in abolishing human nature. In the case of the sexual revolution, for example, the consequence of liquefying all courtship rituals and sexual norms wasn’t a feminist paradise of non-exploitative sex but endemic intimate violence and a multi-billion-dollar porn industry. But the utopians believe so firmly that human nature doesn’t exist that the same thing keeps being tried.
And there is no winner save the market. This utopianism has long since succeeded in liquefying non-transactional sexual relations, to the point where young women reframe their sex lives as a ‘freemium’ product with in-app purchases. The new front in that war on non-transactional relationships is now the denaturing of natural family bonds.
In Full Surrogacy Now Lewis envisions replacing the bourgeois family with a looser and more ‘polymaternal’ form of ‘gestational communism’ in which children are the responsibility of everyone. Now, Germany is considering legal changes that would give legal parental responsibility to groups of up to four adults.
This proposed new law illustrates the limits of this in practice when applied in the material world: the buck has to stop somewhere when it comes to concrete obligations to living infants. Babies and small children are absolutely dependent, and can’t just be picked up and put down again like casual partners in a sexual marketplace according to the shifting preferences of postmodern social life.
And in practice when you try, then the result may be less a loving, fluid, frictionless world of opt-in affection but womb trafficking and abuse of the resulting children. This is already taking form, as with adults growing violent with the demands of an infant who isn’t in the end their genetic progeny; or more darkly commercial as in the procurement of surrogate babies for sexual abuse. In any case, we can be sure that much as the sexual revolution produced both greater freedom and also rampant monetisation of sexual violence, legal changes such as proposed in Germany will likewise end up embodying less the utopian liberal vision and more actually existing neoliberalism, in which human nature continues to be big business.
The War on Relationships won’t ever succeed in abolishing human nature in the interests of freedom. History already tells us that whenever it’s tried, the result is just displacement of that nature, and its penetration by and re-ordering to the market as the darker aspects of our nature are reframed as unmet market needs. But we can expect the effort to continue: the furnace must be fed. At every stage, the apostles of freedom will paint glittering pictures of how nice all this will be. And as ever, this fundamental error of framing will create grim consequences for those least able to bear it.