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Love’s Labour’s Cost: The Political Economy of Intimacy

On Valentine's Day, Emma Dowling makes a powerful case for thinking about the structure of social relationships rather than simply 'the one'.

Emma Dowling13 February 2016

Love’s Labour’s Cost: The Political Economy of Intimacy

Emma Dowling's excavation of the political economy of intimacy analyses how the ideology of work has penetrated the affective registers of our social lives, while at the same time, we are paying for capitalism's crisis as financialisation and austerity attack our structures of social reproduction. Drawing on feminist critiques of women's unwaged housework, Dowling assesses the uneven and gendered distribution of emotional labour today. Love's work, therefore, must be challenged and transformed: as our material precarity increases, rejecting precariousness in our love relations would be a start in building affective resistance and with that, other possible worlds of love and care.

They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.

They call it frigidity. We call it absenteeism.

Every miscarriage is a work accident.

So reads a feminist pamphlet calling for Wages for Housework written by Silvia Federici in 1975. “We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less pressure on them for money, since hopefully our minds are directed elsewhere, to that man in our present or our future who will ‘take care of us.’” 

Taking care in order to be taken care of. That was the deal of heteronormative love. Underpinning the romantic ideal was the domestic contract between the two parties of the heterosexual couple. Each partner entered into the relationship on the basis of a gendered agreement, a reproductive deal: she would cook, clean, have sex, bear children and care for him, while he was to pay the bills and fulfil his role as care-taker – then he could expect to be taken care of. Since the sexual revolution and tide of social change in the 1960s, feminist and queer struggles challenged the inequality and desirability of this set-up – that women’s housework was seen as the ‘labour of love’ undeserving of remuneration, whereas men’s work outside the home, brought both social agency and power in the home thanks to his wage.

The neoliberal restructuring of the state and the economy alongside the rise of the service industry and the entry of large numbers of women into (often low-)paid work have macerated this reproductive deal. If in a sense the nuclear family arrangement has crashed, it hasn’t so much been undone as it has been fragmented into its constituent parts, with the roles outsourced to different paid and unpaid assistive workers. Migrant cleaners, nannies and au-pairs, sex workers and psychotherapists shatter the middle-class myth of the self-sufficient couple.  And it is still women who are doing much of this kind of work. Women, Arlie Hochschild wrote in The Managed Heart in 1984, have been taught to have an instrumentalised relationship to their feelings. It is these abilities that are easily put to work – and nowhere more than in the political economy of intimacy.

A whole app store of life and relationship choices is available to help us negotiate the emotional labour of our intimate relationships. ‘Love’, for those who can pay, has become delinked from the reproductive deal in today’s neoliberal society. But the message of romance behind Valentine’s Day is still founded on the hope that that someone special will be a soulmate who can complete us. And for many, the ideal of romantic love remains premised on care, played out in a lifetime of caring for each other into old age and facing together the realities of material necessity. The promise of economic security of the reproductive deal transposed onto the affective register of what it means to love and be loved: salvation, surrender, resolution.


Today we are told to take care of ourselves. For a long time, however, women have been expected to provide love and care, attending to the needs of others. So focusing on ourselves – what it is that we want, what it is that gives us pleasure – is part of a path towards greater agency and liberation. The double-bind is how this path gets refracted through the prism of neoliberal individualism and the imperative to accumulate.

In an era of financialisation, all of us (not just women) are to invest in ourselves. The promise of salvation lies in the return on investment: just like financial capital extends mechanisms of wealth extraction across society, we too have to put in in order to get out – and what we get out has to be more than what we put in. Where personal growth and wellbeing are mapped onto the logic of capital accumulation, self-realisation means maximising our capacity to be productive, to accrue social, cultural and sexual capital. Moreover, against the backdrop of austerity and plunging job or social security, we have to take care of ourselves because no-one else will. We are our most important asset.

However, the more capital penetrates the affective registers of social life, the more we recoil at this instrumentalisation: the alienation of the commodity form, exchange relations, customer service and the performance management of our lives.  We sense our alienation and long for a feeling of authenticity – for real, meaningful experiences and connection with others. How frustrating and exhausting then, that our encounters are shaped more like transactions, in which we put each other to work to satisfy what we think it is that we need. We outsource the satisfaction of fragments of need to different people, who become interchangeable or connective nodes in an endless network of immanent experiences. Instrumentalised and precarious transactions in the pursuit of momentary fusion, validation, affirmation. Other people become vehicles through which we augment our capacities to act in the world.

Our yearning for authenticity continues to spur the search for romantic love and its allure. Free as we may now be to pursue it, we also find no peace in this constant pursuit of others – many others – to satisfy our desires and wants. Never quite settling on one person for fear that they won’t be enough. For fear that we won’t be enough. And in this brave new world of algorithmic apps and online tools of multiple, abundant connections, there are always more, better matches to choose from. We are never good enough and neither is anyone else for us. In the choice economy of the contemporary love industry, there is always room for improvement, for something new and different. An ontology of inadequacy follows us around and just won’t let us be. There is an anxiety – not to say panic – about this that has engulfed us.


It’s 5.15pm, just before rush hour on London’s Central Line. I manage to get a seat across from a young woman reading a magazine. In the top right hand corner a line in bold pink font suggests to ‘eat like’ a particular celebrity. From where I’m sitting I can make out the contours of a woman in a colourful figure-hugging dress radiantly adorning the corner of the magazine. My immediate thought is how food, providing sustenance, pleasure, and so central to taking care of ourselves, is wielded as an instrument of control. Food and nutrition become a source of anxiety and fears, not only over our figures and complexions, but also our health. Of course, these concerns are forever embedded in an aspirational culture whose affective figures are a vast array of celebrities propped up by a reserve army eager to replace them. Eat like this or that famous person and you will look good, feel great and be lovable! And of course, buy the magazine that will tell you how to be successful.

Indeed, none of these advertising rituals are anything new and an entire industry has thrived on the promise of fulfilment against a backdrop of fear – of love’s labour’s lost. However, what is new about these discourses came to my attention quite poignantly through two recent encounters in which the term ‘clean’ was used to attribute particular value to the product or to the endorsed behaviour. At the cosmetics counter of a department store, I picked up a tube of face cream made by a brand claiming to offer the ‘cleanest’ products on the market: their products were devoid of synthetic preservatives, petrochemicals, colourings or other ‘non-natural’ ingredients. Later, a friend mentioned in conversation that she was eating ‘clean’, referring to her efforts to eat healthily, especially by consuming food that contained minimal chemicals, pesticides or refined substances.

To those conversant with the hashtag language of social media, #cleaneating and other such trends will be familiar. Where has this come from and what might it tell us about how we care for ourselves? The language of cleanliness signals a shift from a concern solely with looking attractive – that is, with appearance, the surface value of how we represent ourselves to others – to a concern with the condition of our very being. In other words, it’s not about how we are on the ‘outside’, but how we are on the ‘inside’. Moreover, being healthy does not replace looking attractive but enhances it from deeper inside us.

There is something eerie about the way that the language of cleanliness has recently crept into our discourse. It has a kind of compulsive echo to it, reminiscent of a neurotic or paranoid need to eliminate dirt or any kind of mess from our surroundings. Often this kind of contamination neurosis reveals itself as a displacement activity: an attempt to regain or hold on to a sense of control over one’s life. Beyond a mere marketing device, this current concern with cleanliness suggests a generalised anxiety driven by the fear of loss of control.


Is this what Gilles Deleuze meant in his prophetic observation of the transition from the disciplinary society to a society of control? In his brief Postscript on the Societies of Control, first published in 1992, Deleuze elaborated on the shift from a society characterised by the disciplinary power analysed by Foucault in Discpline and Punish – a power that operated through institutions such as the school, the hospital, the factory and the prison. According to Deleuze, this kind of power later became much more diffuse and spilled out from these institutions. Today, this free-floating, accelerated power acts on us in more continuous, infinite ways. 

Deleuze suggests we are modulated to conform and, ultimately, produce economic value – whether directly or indirectly. The term ‘modulation’ points to a more subtle, subterranean control of thought and behaviour – one that bypasses consciousness and operates on the more ‘affective’ levels on which our perception and sense-making function. Akin to the notion of tuning and adjustment, modulation is about regulating factors to optimise a person, activity or relationship. We act on ourselves and on each other in accordance with what can be rendered profitable. If we look up the etymology of the word, we find that ‘modulus’ is the diminuitive form of the Latin ‘modus’, which means ‘to measure’.

In his essay, Deleuze not only invokes the world of numerical data and computers, but also floating exchange rates. Under financialisation, the imposition of measure, of quantification, becomes ever-more pervasive in our everyday lives. We count up what we are, what we do and what we achieve in constant ratings and measurable outcomes that can, in turn, be routed through financial markets for the purposes of extracting surplus value.

This imposition of measure is not merely a method of accounting for what has already been produced post-hoc. Importantly, the rise of metrics is closely connected to stringent pressures to be more efficient and more productive, not just to meet, but to exceed future targets – think only of those Key Performance Indicators. The compulsion to quantify has us putting pressure on ourselves to achieve the targets imposed on us by employers, by investors, in the gym and online. This is how our concerns shift from the surface to the subcutaneous, from ‘appearance’ to ‘being’. The proxy measure is still performance, but now we don’t get to represent and narrate our own activity. Instead, the data of our performance speak our truth for us. And with more quantitative information about our bodies and outputs, our sense of control over our own lives seems to intensify, but at the same time, there is also feels like it becomes ever-more elusive as we are drawn in more and more into a world which promises to help us (re)gain it. 

We feel this psychic assault in the workplace keenly. Capital’s ongoing crisis – the anxiety to put accumulation back on track is off-loaded onto the everyday working environments and the people that inhabit them. There is an imperative to be more and more productive, in less time, with less job security and less of a welfare state to keep us should we get sick or otherwise fall on hard times. In the process, we become more precarious. And as this happens, we become more and more aware of what might happen to us should we no longer be able to be productive. 


When it comes to love, the ideology of work sees us striving, not just to find, but to be better lovers. Mess is unattractive; emotional inadequacy an obstacle to gratification. We want to experience intimacy and have interpersonal relationships where we don’t project our ‘messiness’, the unresolved traumas and dramas, onto other people.  We try to process our ‘mess’ so that we can communicate needs, wishes and desires, formulate and uphold boundaries and make choices about how to engage and with whom. This sounds like meaningful individuation – learning how to be emotionally aware and developing healthier attachments and relationships. But the transformative power of individuation is often drained away in the individualised society. 

For those who can afford it, the ambiguity, the messiness, the work of the reproductive deal has already been siphoned off to technology and to others whose paid and unpaid assistive reproductive work allows for the pursuit of romantic love. The package of ‘#clean’ eating, living and indeed loving blends, well, cleanly, into the ideology of individualism: our autonomous asset selves, self-contained atoms, move through the world without leaking, without projecting onto others. Clean, neat selves connecting and engaging with others for what we can get from them and what they help us to do, feel, experience and who they help us to be and become.

When we buy into this idea of autonomous agents in relationships, we erase the emotional and affective labour that goes into forging, constructing and maintaining them. We erase the fact that relationships happen between people, they are shared, they are a being-in-relation. We don’t just work stuff out with and for ourselves, we work through and on each other.  But we need to take a closer look at what work is being done, how and by whom. 

Love does not come for free and indeed costs some people more. Women often find themselves working harder, performing more emotional and affective labour in the political economy of intimacy: the work of taking responsibility, shouldering anxiety, smoothing out tensions and providing validation. This is one of the ways the gendered reproductive deal is preserved in our age of self-responsibilisation. 

The uneven distribution of emotional labour in heterosexual couples is partly an echo of earlier times where traditionally, men, being the main breadwinners, controlled the material structures of the family, while the women’s work was unpaid and unvalued. Furthermore, the neoliberal myth of the free, autonomous individual does not correspond to the reality of the interdependence of social relationships and conceals the reality of structural inequality.

Women, especially women of colour, working-class women and queer and trans people, are more likely to face intersecting barriers and myriad demands on their ability to be ‘free’, such as caring for a relative or financial strains. Furthermore, prevailing gender norms mean that women retain an instrumentalised relationship to our emotions: we are constantly working to refashion ourselves to what we think we should be in order to get what we want. But while agency and choice should be affirmed, this must not happen by ignoring the gendered, racialised and classed complexities of living in this society.  Excavating the political economy of love and intimacy means recognising our social relationships require collective responsibility. It also means recognising the emotional and affective dimension of the social organisation of labour. We must ask who performs the work, who is able to express their needs and desires and whose desires get heard and enabled.

We must also ask how to support each other as financialisation and austerity attack our structures of social reproduction, shifting the work of care onto overburdened grandmothers, daughters, friends and sisters. Capital not only offloads its accumulation anxiety onto us, but also its unwillingness to pay for the reproduction of our labour power or ensure the stability of conditions under which it can occur. Our labouring activities are recoded and feminised to justify non-remuneration, as seen in the gospel of all of us ‘doing what we love’, being a flexible worker, or the idea of rolling up one’s sleeves and getting stuck in, simply because the job has to be done. Meanwhile, budgets are slashed for healthcare and education as the state withdraws even further from the public sector, leaving a gap that is quickly exploited by private capital for financial gain made off the back of unpaid reproductive work. Austerity disproportionately hits women who therefore are literally picking up the tab for capitalism’s crisis.


What would it mean for emotional labour to be recognised? Should we be paid for having relationships? With the rise of the so-called ‘sharing economy’, it is increasingly the case that different component parts of our social and affective relationships are being packaged into products to be bought and sold. This reinforces the transactional nature of exchange relations in the endless merry-go-round of a quid pro quo world. We should remember that Wages for Housework was only partly about pay: its purpose was to show that women’s reproductive labour was not remunerated by capital because it was the very source of its surplus. The point now, as then, is to challenge and transform the ways that work is organised and distributed and the relationships that underpin it. The personal is political. As our material precarity increases, rejecting precariousness in our love relations would be a good place to start to build affective resistance and with that, other possible worlds of love and care.

- Emma Dowling is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Middlesex University, London. Her work covers themes such as affective labour, gender & social reproduction, capitalism & crisis, financialisation, social movements and social change. She is the author of The Care Crisis: What Caused It and How Can We End It?

This essay is part of a series of pieces that we are running this Valentine's week, looking at love, desire and relationships at the intersection of capitalism, the state, and politics. See them all here.

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]

In this groundbreaking book, Emma Dowling charts the multi-faceted nature of care in the modern world, from the mantras of self-care and what they tell us about our anxieties, to the state of the social care system. She examines the relations of power that play profitability and care off in against one another in a myriad of ways, exposing the devastating impact of financialisation and austerity.

The Care Crisis
Every one of us will need care at some point in life: social care, healthcare, childcare, eldercare. In the shadow of COVID-19, care has become the most urgent topic of our times. But our care syst...

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