Marriage has existed primarily as a means of control—of women, certainly, but also of the young generally, and of groups as well. Whether they were marriages based on grand political and economic alliances or a need for increasing home labor and production among the middle classes and the poor, the point seems to have been more about social control and cooperation and much less about love as we think of it today.
In some sense we have capitalism to thank for most of the concepts of love we hold on to today. Early societies had no property relations based on contracts and commodity production and so marriage itself generally existed as cohabitation. As property and commodity relations arose as distinct forms of social relations, marriage came to exist in its contractual form. As we then passed from contracts created and carried out under unmediated compulsion to the “free” contracts under capitalism, concepts of love developed which replaced, or served to replace, coercion. And since the capitalist revolutions which put commodity production in place as a distinct social relationship were led by men, our dominant ideas of love today are largely also male-shaped. Love, as we understand it, has only existed for the few hard-fought centuries which also saw the rise of so-called “voluntary” labor.
We have also seen in living memory a fundamental change in family life and structure. My grandfather was born into a peasant society, essentially pre-capitalist, in which his family functioned as a cooperative producing unit. When he emigrated and became a coal miner he remained within an extended family that was still essentially cooperastive, although they no longer owned or controlled their means of production. My parents did not live their adult lives in a cooperative extended family organized for production, although they helped one another to do their separate jobs. My cousin's families seem to exist primarily as cooperative consuming units, each person aiding and abetting another's separate consuming habits through gift-giving, shared shopping trips and occasional shared vacations. The shift from collective producing to individualized consuming brings with it different roles and expectations for everyone, but particularly for women and the young.
Today the majority of women will marry, but couples tend increasingly to marry later in life and to spend more time unmarried after divorces or the death of a spouse. A contradiction arises: as people become increasingly isolated from workmates and neighbors we draw closer to our spouses for ever-shorter periods in our lives. Our social ties diminish as a primary relationship assumes more importance for a shorter period of time. Both our social ties and our primary relationships suffer under this contradiction. Society has developed a largely unmet and defensive need to help people, especially women, live independent lives and to develop relatively healthy intimate relationships. In a capitalist society this need springs from the needs to produce and reproduce labor power continually and to increase consumption as production also increases—and all without planning.
Intimacy, freed gradually from the coercion of the past, assumes a new role under capitalism and new possibilities emerge. Marriages based on the model of the “free” labor contract are declining, people search for new ways to experience intimacy, relationships shift in importance and duration and expectations shift. It is inevitable that almost everyone in a capitalist society will want to join in and benefit from this because we learn to prize pleasure and self-interest just as we hit the wall of personal alienation. Today this happens under particular circumstances: dominant modes of production in the US are breaking down, wages for men have fallen since 2001, productivity is where it was at before the Internet took off and consumption is down. An ascendant section of capital has found a new market by “freeing” gay labor to be fully productive as they also discover gays as consumers. This capitalist “liberation” of gay labor and consumption finds part of its institutionalization in gay marriage, just as heterosexual marriage arose and was codified under early capitalism. In both cases the institutionalization of modern contracted marriage also fulfills certain demands for the extension of democratic and revolutionary rights which must be defended.
The most reactionary capitalist forces oppose gay marriage and all of the relationship choices modern capitalism presents us with, even though capitalism continues to define the playing field and men remain in control. The attack by these forces on “activist judges” for ruling on behalf of gay marriage is an attack on the existence of an independent judiciary. These forces have a world view which seeks to move society backward to the time of the trusts and corporate control.
As communists we want to go forward. The logical conclusion to the contradictions we’re faced with---the hangover of coercion in “voluntary” relationships, the need for intimacy in a society which atomizes individuals as they engage in social production and consumption, the oppression of women and gays in the face of capital’s need for “free” labor and increasing consumption, increases in population at a time when labor and labor power are being increasingly being made redundant---are to extend intimacy and care-giving beyond the isolated nuclear families we know today, establish revolutionary-egalitarian forms of companionship and provide social support for people to choose from a healthy spectrum of possible relationships and celibacies.