Polyamory as Political Commitment
It’s a truism in contemporary U.S.American culture that there is such thing as the ‘political’ that one can separate from the ‘personal’, the ‘aesthetic’ or the ‘psychological’. But in fact everything is political, and whenever you hear different, you’re in the presence of one type of ideology—late capitalism. The ideology that allows capitalism to function is ingenious—invest everything in this ideology and then say: ‘none of this is ideology or politics; only communists make everything ideological.’ Thus a novel or movie that’s only about ‘relationships’ or ‘psychological drama’ is an ideological one—it’s a capitalist novel or film.
What does this have to do with polyamory? Well, like so many other topics, the default discourse here is to assume polyamory is a ‘lifestyle choice’ and has very little to do with political ideology. To be sure, I know plenty of polyamorists who don’t give a thought to politics, who think their relationships have nothing to do with the political, and who are in fact fairly conservative. But this is all part of the ideological training. We’re taught that things work better or are ‘naturally’ organized when separated. In the end, what this separation achieves is a reduction in our possibilities to share and collaborate. Thus we have academic disciplines, genres, ‘sectors’ of the economy, and of course the monogamous nuclear family (kept distinct from friends and lovers and work partners and creative partners).
What I’m interested in investigating is the liberating powers of polyamory to train us for ways of thinking of self and community that go beyond our ideological training in hyperindividualism and compartmentalization. Poly in fact is a kind of antidote to much of capitalist/neoliberal ideology. How so? Let’s start with how I started—this tendency to put everything in its own well-defined place, sector, discipline (academics), field, etc. Poly can help the borders bleed a bit, as already the lines between friend and lover or between self and community are getting blurred. Poly is rightly seen by both its friends and foes a threat to the institution of marriage, which is a legal institution that of course serves the legal framework that upholds the ideology of late capitalism. It serves power when people are safely quartered off into nuclear families that preserve the gender relations and property relations that keep the system running. We mess that up if we stop thinking of our partners as our property, or we start moving beyond the two-person model into larger family units that start to resemble more communal forms of resource-sharing and living.
Communal forms?! Uh-oh! We’re entering the territory of socialism, communism and anarchism! When people start binding together and sharing resources, and when this larger sharing means those who run into bad luck or hard times are no longer shit out of luck, but can be nurtured back to health in a community setting, this is terrifying to big Capital. Why? Because those with power have only been able to perpetuate exploitative work situations—inadequate salary, poor health care and child care, few job protections, precarious pensions, and of course rampant sexism, racism and homophobia in the work place—because people are terrified of losing their job, given how little a support network we have from the state or from the two-person marriage. A four-person working family all of a sudden offers more support if one needs to challenge their boss and lose a job. Poly people have noticed that when you start sharing partners, possibilities open up for learning, problem-solving, understanding each other. What happens if we realize that sharing space as well, (instead of privatizing it), means more possibilities for learning, problem-solving, understanding each other? Those in power know what that means—that’s why they moved so quickly and so violently to try to crush the Occupy movement.
Of course not all or even most poly people are thinking in these terms here in the USA, but I’m suggesting that we start doing so, and see how that expands and develops our notions of polyamory. Maybe we’ll start wondering if making sure families are small, possessive, and carefully separate in concept from ‘friends’ is something that has been very useful to those in power for centuries. Maybe we can start thinking of poly as not just about ‘loving many’ in terms of adding a partner or two, but in terms of greater spheres of love. Indeed, maybe we stop ruthlessly separating love of family from love of partner or love of community or love of human beings. Maybe it can point us to ways of living—either in communal houses or in communities where we think of all the houses on the block as part of our ‘home’, and we freely share lovers, resources, wisdom, space—that are ‘poly’ in the widest sense. Maybe we can make the connection between what we value at home and what we value in societal organization, and thus the idea of us all sharing the burden and rewards (as in progressive tax systems such as Sweden’s, or as in tribal organizations and anarchist groups) instead of scrambling desperately for our own piece of the pie will no longer seem ‘unAmerican’ or against ‘human nature’. (Not incidentally, when people aver that human nature is selfish and that’s why capitalism ‘works’, what they’re actually referring to is human ‘nature’ after a few hundred years of capitalism. Anthropologists know that human ‘nature’ is about sharing and communal living in a society that’s organized according to community as opposed to hyperindividualism). Maybe just as the thought of someone’s body being our property turns us off as poly people, we can get equally turned off at a factory or company belonging to one person (or one corporate board), instead of belonging to the people who work in it---all of them.
If it sounds like I hate the ‘individual’ and want everyone’s identity to get swallowed whole by some communistic society, that’s only what we’re trained to fear when we hear ‘communal’ thinking or living. In truth, what I’m envisioning increases rather than decreases individual freedom. Isn’t that why we’re poly, those of us who choose it: because of the greater freedom, even though it means responsibility to more human beings than is required of the monogamous person? Now imagine that greater freedom involved in being less possessive and more collaborative not just about partners but about…everything! It only requires moving beyond the kind of extreme individualism in our ideological training that makes us confuse freedom with putting the self first. We know that when we do not put ourselves before our partners, that’s love’s saving grace. We also know that that love comes back to us, so that what we give to our partners we also give to ourselves (Lennon said this much better than me). We also tend as poly people to feel that the more we share our partners the greater intimacy and self-fulfillment, contrary to what we’re taught to expect. Now we just need to learn that trick beyond our partners.
Am I saying poly people are anarchists or commies? Of course not. Thought I do know many such people, it takes only one trip to a bourgeois poly pool party in L.A. to know that’s not true. What I’m saying is we can use what we have learned and are learning about shared resources, more expansive love, and distrust of property relations to change how we think about society at large. We have a head start. Let’s use it!
About the Author
Anthony Cristofani is a PhD student and Italian instructor at the University of California, Riverside. After a 3-year stint in prison and a 5-year stint touring in a rock band, he now spends his time writing fiction and nonfiction, teaching, and community organizing. He lives in a triad with his wife and their girlfriend.
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- Polyamory Weekly Podcast
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