The use of the term “polyamory” seems a bit inconsistent to me. I’ve seen it used to describe throuples and the like, but increasingly to also describe open relationships that range from the purely sexual to the purely romantic, with an entire range of space in between. In trying to explore the connections between modern loneliness and a distinct poly identity, I’m primarily addressing those multi-way relationships that are romantic in character—that is, both involving multiple people as well as being amorous. There is no shortage of gay men who have some degree of sexual—though only rarely romantic—openness in their relationships, but I have found it rare that gay men identify this way. Instead, it seems to be largely a queer phenomenon—the pans, the heteroflexibles, and so forth. Online, many of these people seem to have adopted the poly label in addition to the queer one. Some might suggest that this is a cynical attempt at clout—a type of identity stacking some feel they need in order to be allowed to speak in the increasingly “intersectional” spaces of left-wing political discourse.1A phenomenon described quite well in Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies.
But this isn’t about that. To focus on that would suggest that polyamory is not really a factor in these relationships, or that it is all simply cynical identity theatre. I do not believe this is true, at least not for most. I propose that in an increasingly atomized society, the yearning for group identity, solidarity, and a genuine desire for human interaction, affection, and belonging has produced a new type of relationship that is not—as it presents itself—a radical buck to the system, but rather is a reflection of the system itself.
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All is Loneliness down at Social-Sexual Security Office
The institutions that once offered a sense of group solidarity, identity, and connectivity in our society are gone. Marx’s Theory of Alienation is obviously a good place to start with this. But if you want a more relevant and—no disrespect to Daddy Karl—less dull and German examination of this phenomena, check out Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. Putnam’s central thesis is that after America’s post-war economic bubble—and the accompanying dismantling of social democratic reforms and deliberate destruction of labor power through union busting and free trade agreements—the institutions that kept people together are gone and all of us are lonelier for it. For leftists, this meant that unions, civic organizations, and the like have been replaced by so-called “diseases of despair”—suicide, addiction, and general social decay. The line on the populist right (think Tucker Carlson) seems to be that this analysis is essentially correct, but they also emphasize the effects of the sexual revolution and increasing secularization. As uncomfortable as it makes some of us on the left—especially those of us who were excluded from traditional notions of religion and family (your humble gay writer included)—it would be disingenuous to suggest this argument is meritless.2Very non-materialist of me, I know. Very Red-Brown of me, yes, yes, tut, tut.
People in our society are truly lonely. It doesn’t seem far-fetched that this would spur a desire to seek romantic attention—which is much more potent than both the sexual and platonic kind—wherever, whenever, and with whomever one can find it. From what I have observed among poly friends and acquaintances, these relationships do not seem particularly stable. Then again, most relationships aren’t, and the end of love is a uniquely isolating experience. It seems that polyamory might be an unacknowledged weapon against loneliness—a way to avoid feeling totally abandoned when one relationship fails. Nowadays, almost everyone has a side-hustle—especially after they’ve been burned. Become unexpectedly unemployed once with no savings and you—like me—will be a gainfully employed proletarian still doing a single UberEats delivery once a week to keep your account valid in case you get laid off again. It’s insurance. The more the merrier—or at least the less terrifying. It doesn’t seem unlikely that some people would apply a similar principle to polyamory. Why go bowling alone when you can play video games with the polycule?
Machine Men with Machine Hearts and Machine Minds
“We don’t build things in this country anymore.”
Deindustrialization killed the unions, the blue-collar middle class, and the Midwest. What it left—at least for most of us—was a service gig economy. Our society is now structured around people doing basic tasks for one another that—before deindustrialization—we mostly did for ourselves or for our families: cooking, cleaning, driving, and childcare. The anti-social term emotional labor that the more bloodless lefty types among us use to describe basic humanity turns a lot of people off. But what can you expect when the most mundane and basic tasks of what used to be called “domestic labor,” or chores—which by some cursed and infantilizing turn of linguistic invention are known today as “adulting,”—are now monetized, atomized, specialized, and contracted out? Why would we expect any differently from sexual and romantic relationships?
The specialization and contractualization aspects are most important here. From what I have observed, much of polyamory is niche-oriented; one partner fulfills a certain subset of emotional, romantic or sexual functions, the second fulfills another subset, and so on. The sexual-romantic gig economy of polyamory reflects the actual gig economy in that its participants do not so much have a “career,” or even “role,” in the traditional sense. Rather, they serve as providers of an on-demand function that may be terminated by either party at any time in order to pursue one’s own individual projects. In the industrial era, Marxists demonized capitalism by emphasizing the dehumanizing nature of treating workers as cogs in a machine to produce commodities. Now we demonize the capitalist overlords of the gig economy for treating workers as cogs in a machine that performs the most basic tasks of modern adult life. But what of polyamory? Are its participants not workers on the assembly line of emotional and sexual gratification3Of course this is a metaphor. Everyone knows the good union jobs at the dick sucking factories were shipped overseas years ago, leaving in their wake a vast area plagued by sexual immiseration, pornography addiction, and self-harm (chronic masturbation) which we colloquially call “The Lust Belt.”, paid not with wages, but with reciprocation of the same? Are they not bringing their own skills to the table, their own tools? Exploited for their good dick or good ear? Which emotional and sexual wares will you commodify and bring to the polyamory marketplace today? What do you want? What can you barter for? What particular function can you fill in the machine of another’s desires? What are you good for? What kind of cog are you?
Subversion or Sterility?
I’ve used the term “desires” often throughout this essay, but I think most of the poly “folx” would refer to these as needs. These people aren’t libertines in thought or practice. As a general rule, “the left,” at least in its most recent iteration, is averse to pleasure for its own sake. Instead something like polyamory becomes a “revolutionary political weapon,” and a goldmine for intellectual self-righteousness. This is precisely the reason that suburban, Chamber of Commerce wife swappers and most gay men in open relationships don’t refer to themselves as polyamorous. Someone like Newt Gingrich isn’t gunning to be the Lenin of some sexual revolution; he’s just a decadent pervert. Horndog conservatives aren’t opening their marriages in order to mindfully pursue cerebral engagement or purposefully overhaul a social, political, or economic order. They are doing it out of base horniness and a desire for novelty in an otherwise banal existence—a sort of radicalism in its own right. They’re subverting the traditional morality they claim to believe in. They’re breaking the rules.
The polyamory project isn’t about breaking rules, it’s about rewriting and optimizing them. Any actual circle jerk must be preceded by a metaphorical one—this is how the wonk class fucks. Polyamory borrows from the woke culture it seems to have sprung from (or at least affiliates itself with), requiring ultra-sensitivity, constant discursive engagement, and constant self-reflection. It strives toward a sort of interpersonal wokeness. You wouldn’t want to break the rules, would you? You wouldn’t want to be problematic, right? This ensures that—unlike the conservative hedonists—the polyamorous experience isn’t about erotic subversion, it is about sterility.
Moreover, these people don’t seem to be having a lot of fun. So what is this all about?
Treat Yo’Self, But Don’t Forget to Review and Subscribe
In researching this topic, one of the first articles I came across was about the “self-care” aspects of polyamory. Margaret Thatcher’s retort that “there is no society,” was a prophecy after all. In the absence of the communal project we once called society sprung a culture of “self-improvement.” Our self-help obsessed culture intersects often with the gig economy—particularly in the form of pyramid schemes, which promise both community and individual success—so it is not surprising to see it permeate the poly world as well. The writers of the article even seem to agree with me, writing that:
We’re living in a gig economy culture of radical self-reliance, and this can have devastating consequences for both our physical and mental health. We’re encouraged to be constantly creating, engaging, producing.
Amplifying your OWN definition of productivity – whatever that means to YOU.
This phrase could have easily been ripped from a “Welcome to the Avon family,” brochure. Interestingly, another article on polyamory, noted that:
So far, studies suggest that polyamorous individuals are well-educated, holding more master’s and doctoral degrees than the general population, said Champlain’s Holmes, who is conducting ongoing research of an online sample of more than 5,000 polyamorous individuals. Despite their smarts, they’re not particularly wealthy. “That tells me that it’s probably people who are often more focused on experiences in life, than money,” Holmes said.
I cannot prove that these 5,000 respondents are all “Progressive” PMC urbanites and/or members of the Brooklyn DSA, nor can I decidedly assert that the title of the article “New Sexual Revolution: Polyamory May Be Good for You”—which wraps a self-help message within the high thread count cloth of radical, revolutionary language—is a perfect microcosm of their fundamentally narcissistic and careerist political motivations, but it’s easy to wonder. Where oh where are the receipts hunty?
Both of these articles place heavy emphasis on communication, “they communicate to death,” even. I’ve already hinted at the discourse aspect, but I think it deserves closer examination. Of course, communication is normal and healthy in any relationship, but what seems to be described here—both as descriptive of polyamorous couples and prescriptive for them—is quite above and beyond that. Feeling the constant need to consciously communicate one’s feeling seems to be a particular pathology among members of a “certain class,” let’s say, of people who would rather pay to speak with a therapist than hang out with their friends (you know, therapy for proles).
If you combine a narcissistic need to incessantly communicate one’s own emotions and anxieties with the endless negotiation with one’s partner(s) over which individual’s now-commodified emotional or sexual labor, time, or dignity might be bartered in the interest of each respective party’s quixotic quest for psychosexual nirvana, what you have created is not a dynamic series of interconnected relationships. Instead, what you have created—or rather recreated—is a consumer culture. Your feedback is important to us. Please answer the following questions so we may improve your future experience…
Branding is Everything
In this era—which I like to call the Beginning of the End of the End of History—there is a desire to attach oneself to a group or series of groups. When I see a Twitter bio that reads something like “Rose Emoji, FashBasher, Queer, Latinx, Feminist, Poly, Trap Qween,” etc., I can never decide whether I’m witnessing cynicism or loneliness. I think it’s both, usually. People genuinely want to be a part of something. Polyamory, when practiced as a type of group relationship, surely satisfies this longing to a certain degree. Perhaps even more so, essentializing polyamory—i.e., turning it from an adjective that describes what one does into an adjective that describes what one is—opens up the chance for community. Even the way its sometimes described—using terms such as “coming out”—implies there is something inherent about a person that makes them a poly person, inviting comparisons to homosexuality. In any case, like all identifiers, it helps people connect with others and to distinguish themselves from the general population. I think all people crave this on a certain level, and it certainly isn’t a purely leftwing phenomenon. Where left-liberals have polycules, conservatives have right wing-militias, deplorables, and religion.
Is Polyamory Bad? Should I Participate in It?
Polyamory is the logical outcome of neoliberalism, an economic system that commodifies everything, and the branding exercise of hyper-identitarianism that follows it. To be quite honest, I don’t think it matters whether or not people structure their relationships this way. The essentialism and subculturalist posturing of the online polyamory industrial complex is almost certainly alienating to the average person, just as almost everything the online left does tends to be. My personal experience of polyamorous people is that they live in a cloud of ambient anxiety, communicating constantly about the need for communication, and that—although typically nice and decent—they can often be self-righteous. In true Marxist fashion, I come merely to critique.. I have no real prescriptions, other than, I suppose, some vague call for revolution. I simply ask that our comrades not delude themselves into believing that we will be sucking and fucking our way toward it.
|↑1||A phenomenon described quite well in Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies.|
|↑2||Very non-materialist of me, I know. Very Red-Brown of me, yes, yes, tut, tut.|
|↑3||Of course this is a metaphor. Everyone knows the good union jobs at the dick sucking factories were shipped overseas years ago, leaving in their wake a vast area plagued by sexual immiseration, pornography addiction, and self-harm (chronic masturbation) which we colloquially call “The Lust Belt.”|