Boom and bust in the meat market

Becoming single again is sometimes called, with cheerfully callous accuracy, being back on the ‘meat market’. This phrase neatly points to the fact that love and money are as intertwined as man and wife, and that the rhetorics of the marketplace have thoroughly infected even the supposedly rarified space of love.

In the consumption-based capitalism that has come to prominence over the last century or so, the nature of romantic relationships mirrors and enables working relationships. For example, in the mid-twentieth century, the growth of romantic marriage and its awkward bedfellow, the nuclear family, allowed the rise of the middle-class male worker. The stay-at-home wife-and-mother supported his work practices and also worked to breed biddable citizens of the future. In this period, both jobs and romantic relationships were relatively stable. You worked at the same company, and you worked over the same set of genitals for the most of your natural life.

Now, we live in an era of ‘just-in-time’ capitalism that employs tenuous casualised and contract labor at all pay levels. These conditions have seen the creation of what Alison Hearn calls the ‘branded self’, a highly-constructed version of our personality at which we are always expected to work in order to make ourselves saleable in a competitive and unstable job market.  As Hearn points, the idea of ‘presenting yourself’ is hardly new: it’s just that we need to do it a lot more now.

This is also true of romantic relationships. People are expected to have multiple relationships over the course of their lives, and the idea of only ever having a relationship with one person is widely seen as ‘unhealthy’. This means that we are all spending much more time doing dating, a practice which resembles nothing so much as a sexually-charged mutual job interview. It also means that we are spending more and more time and money packaging and promoting ourselves in order to  ‘sell’ ourselves to strangers as having ‘relationship potential’.

Part of this continuous selling of the self is the development of ‘relationship skills’. It used to be that being someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend was a fairly diverse role, a peculiar combination of maid or butler, prostitute and therapist. This was a financially efficient system, for although the service provided by each party may not have been of ‘professional quality’, it sure was conveniently located and highly personalised.

But people are now encouraged to develop transferable skills.  For example, just as I can use my skills with WordPress and pastry making to get one casual job after the other, so I can use my ability to ‘really listen’ to a man’s problems and to enact a decent head job to get one boyfriend after another. If my skills are rare enough, then I need have no allegiance to either boyfriend or workplace but if I have very common skills, then they need have no allegiance to me, because I am highly replaceable. In other words, ‘relationship skills’ enable the belief that there is a free market for love.

This casualisation of relationships suits late capitalism nicely. It causes a net increase in romance, which in this context is mostly importantly an increase in the time in which people exchange objects with no great resale value, and undertake expensive, ephemeral activities to make another person feel ‘special’. Dinners, movies, weekends away: these require the expenditure of capital but leave you with nothing to sell afterwards except memories. In particular, women receive many objects in the early stages of romance such as chocolates, flowers, lingerie and perfumes, all of which have very low – or in the case of used lingerie, highly variable – resale value.

It also causes a net increase in the amount of self-maintenance that people undertake to be successfully ‘dateable’. Working out at the gym, getting your bits waxed, buying new clothes, getting your car detailed, making your flat look nice, buying new makeup, getting new hair and so on and on, are all imagined as requisites for dating. These activities require a constant outlay, because they must be repeated, and the objects that are required to undertake them have, once again, very little resale value.

All this dating may eventually lead to the potlatch that is the modern wedding ceremony. From a legal point of view, marriage is very much about money, being merely a contract that primarily works to waive the two year ‘cooling off period’ normally applied to the sharing of assets in a cohabiting situation. But ‘the wedding’ itself is a spectacular display of wealth and taste, and requires the use of many different objects with, once again, limited resale or reuse potential.

On the other hand, actually being in a long term relationship is pretty cheap. People may even begin to become comfortable with each other, and so spend neither time nor money on their appearance or going out on expensive dates. Instead, they eat cheese on toast and watch torrented Game of Thrones before having free sex in their old underpants on their dirty couch. People involved in long term relationships may even have the audacity to ‘let themselves go’, a beautifully Buddhist idea if you think about it, ridiculed by the dominant ideology because it troubles that primary unit of consumption: the ever-maintained, ever-bettered self.

Being in a partnership also enables you to work capitalism in your favor by sharing expenses, capital, skills and resources. People know this. As Marina Adshade, author of Dollars and Sex, found in her research, ‘people marry  …  because you have so many opportunities to share consumption when you’re married’.

But contemporary capitalism does not like people sharing. It does not like people making permanent alliances. There is little profit in contentment. Hence rhetorics of romance and the insistence on monogamy in a world full of people desperately trying to make themselves fuckable are both ubiquitous and unachievable. If we are constantly dissatisfied with our current situation, be that a job or a relationship, and think that we can ‘do better’, then we will undertake practices and buy objects in order to better our situation … and so consumer culture will roll on.

This all means that when we are single once again, we will allow ourselves to be depressed and ‘unproductive’ for only a non-clinical length of time. And then we will peel ourselves off the couch, spend a shitload of money on feeling temporarily better about the way we look and feel, in order to wheel ourselves back out again into the ‘meat market’, and to play our part in that classic boom-and-bust cycle that is contemporary romance.






Helen Addison-Smith

Helen Addison-Smith has been previously published in journals such as Island, Hecate and refo, and was featured in Overland's first e-book Women's Work. She's a reformed chef and a persistent single mother.

More by Helen Addison-Smith ›

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  1. This is a deeply cynical piece, and I liked it, though, try telling THAT to someone whilst on a date! … And here comes Valentine’s Day, the perfect instance of a romance with the consumerist society of late capitalism. But tell me: what woman won’t EXPECT something ‘special’ and ‘nice’ from her partner this day of mass romance, this day of endorsed romance, this Valentine’s Day; that is, something especially the result of monetary expense and/or something deemed romantic by mass consensus?

    Complicity aint such a subtle thang.

    1. I’d agree. There is a strange element of cognitive dissonance with Valentines Day. In the sense that everyone knows it’s a highly commercial/consumer driven occasion, but then there is an expectation to do something anyway.

      The idea that there’s been a transition to a form of casualisation of romance and relationships is an interesting thought. There’s been a shift. Consider the impact online dating which at times seems to be the equivalent of fast-food.

      With the very foundations of labour changing, so too does everything else, including relationships.

  2. Being in a partnership and then leaving it also seems to allow capitalism to work in your favour.

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