Consumer Capitalism Comes for Love

A look at how modern “relationships” impact us.

12min read

It’s a frosty Friday night and the faint whiff of potential debauchery lingers in the air. It taunts me as I try my best to relax and accept the fate of a quiet night in. My friend sits on the floor as I survey his activities from the couch. I watch his thumb perform a tap routine across his phone as the faces of women fly by. While I marvel at the dextrous nature of his digits, I can’t ignore the feelings growing in my gut. Weird and wonderful people are being tossed aside in less time than it would take to exchange pleasantries. Alongside my concern for the looming arthritis this chum will inevitably face in the coming years exists an unignorable worry for humanity as a whole. Watching his performance, I am bombarded with questions that feel too big to answer. Mainly, how the fuck did it come to this? My body melts further into the couch. With a swift sigh, I allow myself to surrender to the dark and delicious feeling of judgement. It flows out onto the floor and washes over my friend’s poor, unassuming body. I sit here judging him as he judges an alarming amount of women he has never met purely based on their physical appearance. My Friday night has become a hypocritical circle-jerk of judgement. It’s not quite the flavour of sin I was hoping for this weekend.

Ears getting jealous? You can listen to this article instead…

As a pansexual serial monogamist who only has sex with people I feel emotionally connected to, I must confess that my investigation into Tinder only endured a very fleeting stage of qualitative research, making me entirely unqualified to write this article. Yet upon first hearing about the app a few years ago, my fascination was instant. I have sequestered my cool, young friends to give me a tour of their Tinder profiles many times. Like their technology illiterate grandma, I peer down my nose and ask annoyingly basic questions: “So, swipe left is good?” Or, “What do you do if you match with someone you already know?” Or, the shameful, “Oh no, take your phone off me! I’ve done a super like.”

Whether searching for companionship or a quick bang, the model of Tinder seems to apply a ‘demand and supply’ ethos to dating. We market ourselves as easy to consume products, playing up our strengths and conveniently leaving out our significant flaws. We are encouraged to describe ourselves similarly to how we would describe any other commodity: appearance, extra features, and mileage. 

“This one has been around the block a few times, so it has a few minor dents and scratches –  hardly noticeable due to a flash new paint job. It still runs great and will get you where you need to go.”

To get an edge over the competition, we must make the most of the single page we are given to represent ourselves. We skim over our inherent complexities by writing a snappy, bite-sized summary of who we are, often using humour to capture the attention of potential mates. 

We break our backs during self-directed, frustration-fuelled photoshoots in an attempt to get the perfect profile shot. We upload those rare golden nuggets; the photos that capture a freak moment in time when the angels’ blessings have beamed down upon us, and, due to a sheer stroke of luck (or good karmic energy in the bank), we look tantalisingly fuckable. 

For most apps, the main goal is to keep users interacting with its interface; to keep us coming back to the well. For Tinder to be successful in its mission, we must continually participate in the swipe market. It endeavours to turn social interactions into a game. Like pokie machine addicts, we keep pulling the lever, hoping we will eventually hear the “bing bing bing” of our hard-earned jackpot, and in bright neon letters appears…“Sex!” 

In this model, having a plan B, C and D is of great importance. If a date goes awry and fails to titillate, we can be back on the swipe game in mere moments to find someone who on the surface looks more likely to give us what we want; or, at least, what we think we want. The first whiff of small talk referencing our list of no-nos (maybe the National party or Contiki tours around Europe), we are frantically thumbing our phones under the bar leaner. Committing to one person and the unavoidably uncertain nature of a romantic relationship would fracture the system Tinder created and now depends on. 

If many of us were to see what is necessary for our personal growth written down and sold to us on paper, we would probably decline. Progress is innately difficult. Unless somehow at this precise moment you find yourself to be a totally healed human, who by chance crosses paths with another totally healed human, you are likely to have to buckle up and endure a bumpy road dappled with discomfort. 

The paradoxical joke of “commitment” suggests that we can only reap the rewards of being with someone long term if we persevere through moments that feel like utter bullshit. Negative communication patterns, drastic insecurities, dangerous overthinking, defensiveness, betrayal, stonewalling, substance dependence, or any manner of unexamined childhood trauma are but a tasty selection from the buffet of human inadequacy we can expect to sample on our quest for true love.

I think of meaningful relationships, soulmate status shit, as holding a mirror up to each other, reflecting each other’s bad parts and beauty. We have an opportunity to see ourselves for who we really are. It can be glorious. To quote Srećko Horvat, “Falling in love occurs on that revolutionary plane of the imagination; Love renders the ability to see another person, to relate to another being and vice versa, to relate to ourselves meaningfully through another person.” However, there will inevitably come a time when this other person helps us face something we could never truly see on our own. 

We may even find ourselves stuck in a self-hate loop, relentlessly asking our crouched and quivering reflection, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” From here we have two options. We can run away whilst simultaneously blaming the other person for drawing our attention to the ugliness and set up camp in a place called Denial. (Many explorers have made the calamitous mistake of popping into Denial for a quick visit – upon finding such a cosy spot for themselves, they forget to leave). Or, we can stare back, dig our heels in, and try our best to figure this shit out. 

Picking apart our own wiring and recognising what triggers our counterproductive reactions and why (the why is actually not super helpful, but interesting and soul-wrenching nonetheless) is a necessary part of a healthy, long-lasting connection. However, weathering the storm of our own insides is not a journey to be embarked upon by the faint-hearted – especially as the catalyst for this process, that “special someone,” is compelled to watch our fumbled attempts at self-actualisation through their fingers, as if watching us walk a tightrope. This balancing act is made even more difficult as we hold our partner’s hand through their issues too. We may only have the energy to endure this rigamarole a handful of times over our lifespan; luckily, people who float our boats sail by rather infrequently.

Relationships are hard work, and I’ve done a bloody good job of making them sound pointless and horrible. They are, however, the direct opposite. Meaningful relationships are proven to be the single biggest predictor of lifelong happiness – as backed by science people, people!

The “Harvard Study of Adult Development” is perhaps the longest study of adult life ever carried out, following more than seven hundred men for over seventy-five years. It is an ongoing, comprehensive study of every aspect of the participants’ lives; you name it, they measure it. One of the goals of this study is to discover the most significant contributors to happiness. Most Millenials guessed that the researchers would find fame, wealth, and success to be the biggest predictors of happiness. They guessed wrong. 

A few years ago, the fourth and most recent director of the study, Robert Waldinger, shared the team’s findings: “The clearest message that we get from this seventy-five-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. Living in the midst of warm relationships is protective.” 

With this research, the lab was able to accurately predict who would grow into the healthiest and happiest Octogenarians. They achieved this by reviewing the data as the participants hit around fifty years old. The subjects who were highly satisfied in their intimate and romantic relationships were the healthiest and happiest participants later in life. Being in a securely attached romantic relationship slowed the decline of brain health and the onset of degenerative disease. Physical ailments were more manageable, and cognitive ability remained largely intact. 

Waldinger also pointed out that, despite popular opinion, the definition of a “secure relationship” did not necessarily mean a lack of playful bickering or disagreement between spouses. For the purpose of this study, a secure relationship could be defined as a bond centered around reliability, commitment, and growth; it means being there for each other when it counts. The study unequivocally proves what many already knew: those who choose to lean into their personal relationships fare better on life’s journey and enjoy it for longer. 

So, let us now go back to that cold Friday evening. As I watched my friend thumb his way through a significant section of Dunedin’s female population, I worried. I worried then as I do now that we have allowed dating apps to normalise the commodification of relationships. And if we accept the commodification of relationships, by default, we accept the commodification of people. The elaborate system of swiping, risking, and hedging our bets has added a transactional nature to socialising, sucking the mystery out of what was once a slow, sexually frustrating, albeit oddly exciting, seesaw ride. 

In a capitalist world, dating might be the next victim claimed by a society obsessed with instant gratification. Tinder, Bumble, Instagram, whatever have edged their way into the mainstream. These apps market complex and fucked up people as easy to digest commodities. They encourage us to make snap judgements based on fanciful and often fraudulent information. To quote the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, “the principle underlying capitalist society and the principle of love are incompatible.” If a quick and easy union is what we expect from a relationship, we will be perpetually disappointed. For us to reap the rewards of a successful connection, we must apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the hard work they often require, and this notion is incompatible with Tinder’s business model. And, frankly, so am I.

Words by Erin Cox
December 2021

issue six playlist

Spring Bliss Out

Ideal location: Inspired by Waiputai (Blueskin bay) therefore best enjoyed on headphones whilst walking along Ōkāhau (Warrington beach), Doctor’s Point up to Mapouthai Pā, or in your car driving Coast road to Karitane.
Accompanying snacks: Complement with Evensdale farmhouse Brie Cheese and a buttery Chardonnay.
Curated by: Danny Brady

  • I can Only Bliss Out (F’days) – Laraaji
  • –––––––– – Design A Wave
  • Kiss the Glass – Darling
  • Sans cesse, mon cheri – Domenique Dumont
  • Never Let Me Go – Cindy
Full playlist

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