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Marriage and monogamy as capitalist oppression

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Do you remember the old commercial where someone eating from a jar of peanut butter collided with someone eating a bar of chocolate, and in the process discovered the flavor of Reese’s Cup? A true marriage of tastes. Well, this collision of feminism, Marxism and plain old bitterness is more like the theoretical equivalent of a stalker’s fantasy – a bizarre distortion of reality as viewed through a determinedly deluded mind:

…40 years after Betty Friedan, Laura Kipnis has arrived with a new jeremiad, Against Love: A Polemic, to tell us that this hope was forlorn: Marriage, she suggests, belongs on the junk heap of human folly. It is an equal-opportunity oppressor, trapping men and women in a life of drudgery, emotional anesthesia, and a tug-of-war struggle to balance vastly different needs…

Kipnis’ essential question is: Why? Why, in what seems like an age of great social freedom, would anyone willingly consent to a life of constricting monogamy? Why has marriage (which she defines broadly as any long-term monogamous relationship) remained a polestar even as ingrained ideas about race, gender, and sexuality have been overturned?

Now, take a minute, relax, channel a little Tammy Wynette, get yourself another icy glass of Pepsi, and get ready to learn the answer to life’s age-old question – why get married?

Kipnis’ answer is that marriage is an insidious social construct, harnessed by capitalism to get us to have kids and work harder to support them. Her quasi-Marxist argument sees desire as inevitably subordinated to economics. And the price of this subordination is immense: Domestic cohabitation is a “gulag”; marriage is the rough equivalent of a credit card with zero percent APR that, upon first misstep, zooms to a punishing 30 percent and compounds daily. You feel you owe something, or you’re afraid of being alone, and so you “work” at your relationship, like a prisoner in Siberia ice-picking away at the erotic permafrost.

Meghan O’Rourke, the author of this review in Slate of Kipnis’s book, does call foul a little on the premise:

Let’s accept that the resolute public emphasis on fixing ourselves, not marriage, can seem grim, and even sentimentally blinkered in its emphasis on ending divorce. Yet Kipnis’ framing of the problem is grim, too. While she usefully challenges our assumptions about commitment, it’s not evident that we’d be better off in the lust-happy world she envisions, or that men and women really want the exact same sexual freedoms. In its ideal form, marriage seems to reify all that’s best about human exchange. Most people don’t want to be alone at home with a cat, and everyone but Kipnis worries about the effects of divorce on children. “Work,” in her lexicon, is always the drudgery of self-denial, not the challenge of extending yourself beyond what you knew you could do. But we usually mean two things when we say “work”: The slog we endure purely to put food on the table, and the kind we do because we like it—are drawn to it, even.

While it’s certainly true that people stay in an unhappy relationship longer than they should, it’s not yet clear that monogamy is more “unnatural” than sleeping around but finding that the hum of your refrigerator is your most constant companion. And Kipnis spends scant time thinking about the fact that marriage is a hardy social institution several thousand years old, spanning many cultures—which calls into question, to say the least, whether its presence in our lives today has mostly to do with the insidious chokehold capitalism has on us.

It seems to me that Kipnis’s premise falls on its own merits, and hardly needs me to dissect it. She ignores essential aspects of the human condition – the needs for affection, security, connection and meaning in life. She ignores an essential factor necessary for society to survive – social cohesion. And she advocates a self-centric worldview that would reject any claim by any one – family, friend, lover, community, society – on our lives or efforts, any situation where curbing a self-gratifying impulse would benefit the greater good. It appears to me that in the process she also ignores a central tenet of Marxism – the subordinating of the self for the good of the whole, which is foundational in socialism (in theory – we know that in practice it is actually a ruse to justify elite rule and wealth).

In my opinion, what has resulted in the increase in divorce is precisely the blinkered self-absorption that Kipnis thinks should be the default approach to life. As someone whose grandparents were married 57 years before my grandfather died; whose parents have been married 46 years; whose sister has been married 25 years; and whose brother has been married for 8 – all happily – I think I can speak to what makes happy relationships. It’s about choosing the right person, for the right reasons, and then making it your business to be a partner in a relationship. Of course a marriage won’t work if the couple don’t put each other first, or if either one sees the relationship merely as a means to fulfill his or her own desires (for romance, sex, admiration, money, children, status, whatever). As with any successful endeavor, it takes work, commitment and sacrifice; like any successful endeavor, it takes the right raw materials; and like any successful endeavor, the rewards are greater than the effort put into it, in the long run.

I think a book like this says more about the author than the subject. Kipnis, a communications professor at Northwestern who teaches film, is apparently a throwback to the 1970s bitter feminists that I’ve been assured no longer exist. Somebody give the girl a Reese’s Cup to sweeten her up a little.

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About Susanna Cornett

  • Eric Olsen

    Couldn’t agree much more with your take Susanna, although the less “modern” the relationship, the more some of the exploitation angle may hold.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Oh Sussanah, why don’t you “put another log on the fire
    And cook me up some bacon and some beans?”

  • http://bias.blogfodder.net susanna

    Exploitation is always a matter of feeling superior and not having the best interests of the other person at heart, and I think it’s often a factor in “modern” relationships – if by modern we mean 21st century. But I do think that exploitation of women in marriage is less likely to be due to a broadbased sexism now than in previous generations, which is certainly a more modern attitude. Now it can run either way, as a result of self-absorption.

    Al, I would actually do quite well both laying a fire in the fireplace and cooking up some quite awesome baked beans, from scratch even. I’m just worried that if I did, I’d wind up pouring the pot of beans over your head. :D

  • http://www.homeintampabay.com John Mudd

    Marriage is a partnership, and it can be a very beautiful one, or a very ugly one, depending on why people get married and what kind of people they are.

    Selfish people should never marry, but they do, and still will, but if they do, they should never have children, because most of these marriages end in divorce, and then children end up suffering.

    When a man embraces a woman and everything she stands for, and even if he doesn’t, can embrace her differences and love her unconditionally, treat her as an equal, not a slave to the stove, embrace who and what she is, respect her and her views, different from his or not, and cherish, not take for granted, the fact that she is there, as a soul/life-partner, through both good times and bad, he should marry.

    If a man is unable to do these things, he isn’t ready for such a committment, and isn’t being fair to his life-partner, or potential life-partner.

    If people weren’t so selfish, the divorce rate would be low and prenups wouldn’t exist. It really is a sad reflection on our society that both are so common.

    I say that even though divorce is good for my business.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Actually Ms. Susanna, I’m a pretty fair chef myself. I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll cook up the beans, and then you can dump them on my head. Or perhaps you could get Mac Diva to do the honors.

    Hey, it’s less nasty than some of my friends’ fetishes.

  • http://bias.blogfodder.net susanna

    Only if I don’t have wait until the beans cool to dump them on you, Al. :D

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    I see you like to play rough.

    I can work with that.