Each year, February 14 inspires a slew of invective on the vulgarization of romance into a consumer holiday — one that manipulates us into proving our love by buying oversized teddy bears and Hallmark cards. But the monetization of love is neither new nor unique to Valentine’s Day: it is the heart of the capitalist project.
“Nothing, in fact, has been so powerful in institutionalizing our work, the family, and our dependence on men as the fact that not a wage but ‘love’ has always paid for this work,” the Italian academic Silvia Federici writes in Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. The work of care — of cooking, washing, child-rearing, and so on — has traditionally been represented as a woman’s duty done in the name of love. What gets mystified in the process is its function as labor necessary for reproducing and sustaining the global market.
Federici historically locates the delegitimation of care work in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Under the feudal serf system, peasants were given protection and the right to use certain fields for their own subsistence in exchange for free labor and crops. Under feudalism “all work contributed to the family’s sustenance.”
With the decline of feudalism, however, a new organization of productive relations based on wage labor became predominant. In this system, what we see emerge is a clear-cut hierarchy between home and workplace. As wages became necessary for survival, only time spent in the workplace appeared to be valuable. The labor required to ensure the worker was ready to come back each day for more gradually slipped into the shadows of the domestic sphere. At the same time, the costs for the reproduction of labor power were of course not reimbursed by the capitalists dependent on it.
Mass Producing Private Feeling
If the exploitation of care work and the instrumentalization of love were the foundations of capitalism in the past, not much has changed since. The transformation of Valentine’s Day from a little-known saint’s day to an enduring American consumer holiday in the 1840s, for example, should not be understood as some deviation from the norm.
This process of mass-marketization drew in large part on the Romantic sense of alienation in the face of rapid industrialization. As one writer for the Philadelphia Public Ledger put it, “we have grown so common-sensical, that all the old feast, or holi, or holy-days are nearly blotted off from the calendar . . . we all calculate too much.” He praises this “blessed day” for Americans to put aside their “business cares and thoughts” with “an abandon of feeling.”
The Puritan ethos of discipline and abstinence which defined the spirit of early American capitalism inspired an entire counterculture of romantic nostalgia for fun and festivity in Victorian America. In his book Consumer Rites, Leigh Eric Schmidt examines the Victorian revival of St Valentine’s Day as a response to a deep-seated romantic longing. Printers, booksellers and lithographers used an emerging advertising industry to tap into these desires and channel them into market:
The romantic alienation from bourgeois disciplines and Enlightenment rationality — the quixotic longing for festival and play, the renewed yearning for freedom, license, and imagination — invited new market experiments with the holidays: Merchants could both stir and satisfy these romantic cravings for sentiment, fantasy and celebration.
But Valentine’s Day was only the vanguard. As Schmidt notes, it paved the way for the mass-marketization of numerous other holidays including Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Their new purpose under capitalism was to satisfy a desire for festivity, while at the same time domesticating it. With the consumer revolution of these holidays, rituals were refashioned from local, community fêtes to national family and friend-centered holidays. Valentine’s Day epitomized this shift when it transformed from a communal festival of pairing games, fortune-telling, and drinking in streets or churchyards to the private exchanges of standardized greetings.
But the mass production of private feeling inspired an immediate backlash. “It is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not represent your life and talent,” Ralph Waldo Emerson bemoaned in 1844. “The only gift is a portion of thyself,” he concluded.
Although Emerson’s calls to “obey thy heart” and “leave all for love” were a reaction against the pressures of industrialization, his emphasis on the autonomy of the individual and spontaneous and free expression were entirely compatible with bourgeois ideology. Identifying the atomization of the social sphere, it advocated for love’s retreat from collective social life into “a private and tender relation of one to one.” Because Romantic ideology’s emphasis on the individual was not a threat to its own ethos, capitalism easily incorporated these energies and rebranded them for consumption.
The question remains: If love has been made complicit, how can we recuperate it? Although socialism has often (and still is) charged with denigrating the individual, romance, and the family in the name of the collective, it strives to do the exact opposite: by communalizing care and the work it takes to ensure we are able to contribute to society (such as health care, education, and child care), it stops putting the pressure on the family, romantic partners, and the individual. It is without the burden of working for sheer survival that these relationships can flourish.
In the short term, this could take the form of welfare and more generous social provisioning that acknowledges the central role care work plays in the social reproduction of our society. A strong social support system will enable everyone to participate in political life and in the shaping of society. But it will also level the playing field for those most vulnerable to market pressures, for those who have to rely on low-wage jobs while raising and caring for their families.
On Valentine’s Day, if the question is how we can recuperate love, maybe the answer should be by revolutionizing it.