On Friendship in Late Capitalism

Having recently read Mark Fisher’s “Capitalist Realism”, I’ve been re-evaluating a number of commonplace features of life through the lens of the capitalist implications. The notion of the family unit is discussed briefly in Capitalist Realism, as is the narcissism inherent in social media. In this post I will put forward some of my views on the nature of friendship in late capitalism, as mitigated by social media.

We live in an age where so much of what we do has the aim of production of work for the sake of capital reward. Gradually, mediated through the social sphere of the internet, our private lives and work lives have been merging. There is no such thing as a personal space on the internet so long as it bears the name of the user, and the act of protecting or anonymising accounts draws attention to those who wish to opt out. The presence a person has on social media has a knock-on effect on their work life, with more and more employers turning to Facebook and Twitter to profile their potential employees.

In effect, we live in a world where we have necessarily turned our social functions into capitalist functions. Our social networks have become a place to develop a “brand” for ourselves, where we promote ourselves by means of “likes”, “retweets”, “shares”, the reward of which is the chance of increasing an audience. We develop implicit or explicit brand allegiances with our friends, that we reciprocate promotions and endorsements. The new contractualism of friendship is that if you share my posts, I will share your posts. In this way we have developed a capital value for our interactions and thoughts, which has an exchange rate. We can identify friends who are not efficient in our networks and do not increase our capital, and we can focus our networking on friends who do increase our capital. We are selling ourselves, to our friends and to our employers.

In turn, we find that the effect is alienation. Social networks allow a stripping-down of social interactions and cut through a layer of private life in a way which damages our relationships. It is expected, perhaps even part of the social contract, that the time you spend with a friend is endorsed on social media, as this is the way in which you promote your friend. However, the effect is that you now alienate other members of your social circle by implicit exclusion. The delicate social negotiation is between recognising and endorsing the friend with whom you have spent time as payment for the use of their friend-product, while not enacting a deliberate exclusion of the other friends who are not having their product recognised. Before the widespread use of social media one would not have expected an announcement or acknowledgement that time was to be spent between two friends, and such an announcement would not have felt necessary to give evidence or proof to an interaction. Now, the absence of such a public acknowledgement might be felt as a shame, or an unwillingness of a friend to endorse your friend-product.

Furthermore, the success of a person on social media can itself be a source of alienation. With a thousand silent friends, watching but never interacting, a person will feel alienated from their wider social circle. These large networks facilitate a diffusion of responsibility towards people as individuals. One cannot possibly invest equally in the many hundreds of persons involved in one’s social network. It would be easy to see the application of the bystander effect, where one might appeal to one’s network for some kind of help and yet receive no response regardless of having a large number of “friends”. The effect of this is that a person might have a wide-ranging network of potential friends, but an inefficient network of close friends. Friendships now sit within specific contractual arrangements, for example, one friend may reciprocate sharing certain links, one friend may reciprocate “likes”. The reward set for that interaction is the currency of the particular social media network (“likes”, “favourites”, “shares”), and the mitigation of this relationship by machine encourages this to be a narcissistic process which does not necessarily facilitate acts of friendship that do not entail such rewards (eg, travelling a distance to give physical comfort to a grieving friend, which does not earn a “like”).

Social media itself knows the power of peer-to-peer product promotion, and is desperate to use you as a brand marketer for the products paying for the right to advertise themselves. We know that an advertisement is more effective when it is presented by a trusted source than when it is presented with no other context. The capital aim of social media is to harness the user to promote brands to their friends, through “shares”, “likes”, “retweets”, and so on. Social media also understands that power of products pretending to be your friends, through creating marketable brand personalities. Brands effectively employ social media mascots as character actors for the face of a brand in order to build a “friendship”, which will develop lucrative capital gain. Celebrities also behave in similar ways, and promote their own capital by masquerading as your friends.

Those of us who do mostly abstain from certain social media outposts are automatically made pariahs, and our punishment is exclusion from invitations to “events” in the real world and the lack of promotion of our friend-product. Arguably, social success now depends on the ability one has to interface with public social networking, which now replaces a significant proportion of one-on-one, private communication between friends.

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Reaction: One Dimensional Woman

I recently read the wonderful and engaging book “One Dimensional Woman” by Nina Power. One Dimensional Woman is a brilliant critique of feminism in the age of capitalism, and I thoroughly recommend that you pick the book up.I found, reading Nina’s book, that framing the problems of feminism from a capitalist point of view was really enlightening, and I think it is a parable to all of us to be careful of what exactly capitalism is advertising and the way in which feminism is marketable in a detrimental way.

I would like to add my own voice and views to chapter 1.0, “The Feminisation of Labor”. Nina talks lucidly but briefly about the conflict women face between being caregivers and being workers. Those of you reading who know me well will know that this is a particular hobby-horse of mine, and will also know that this is one of the many reasons why I won’t call myself a feminist. For the sake of new friends, and a slight departure for this blog, I would like to treat you to a rant about the status of women in the workplace, and why the next big step for feminism needs to be a change in men’s rights.

It has always struck me as appalling how, despite years upon years of women’s rights campaigning and so much progress in so many areas, that women still get left miles behind in the workplace. In the UK and US, women can expect a significantly lower chance of attaining a high-level job, and even on equivalent jobs can still expect to be paid less than their male counterparts. As someone embroiled to some extent in academia, the figures for female professors verses male professors is very disheartening. Even looking at the breakdown of female MPs verses male MPs can be heartbreaking at times, and to be honest is often quite a reflection on the political party concerned.

For the longest amount of time I had just assumed this would be the case everywhere, but it came as a shining revelation to me that the Scandinavian countries don’t suffer anywhere near as badly with this divide. I had to ask, why? What does Scandinavia do that we don’t?

The answer is simple. Maternity and paternity laws.

The biggest roadblock and unspoken prejudice against any woman in the workplace is her status as a potential host to a young human being, and the potential threat that, at any time unbeknownst to her employer, she will take off for 52 weeks on maternity leave, wherein she is paid 39 weeks at 90% of her wages. A male employee however would only be entitled to 2 weeks with the potential for a further 26 weeks if his partner returns to work. Now, I am not by any means against maternity leave, nor am I in any way happy that employers would discriminate against me on the mere possibility that I might pop out a baby. However, when you look at this it surely becomes rather obvious why it makes less business sense to hire a woman? An employer should not by any means make a decision on this basis, but the risk factor is so much greater.

We need, absolutely need, to make parental leave something that is shared between parents, where all parents are equally eligible to take this leave and, in my opinion, where both parents have a mandatory month of paid leave following the birth of a child. This is the only way to level the playing field, and to make women able to compete in the workplace.

Looking at this from my point of view, these expectations put me off wanting to have a child at all. I don’t want to find myself needing to take a career break of 6 – 12 months in order to start a family. Not at all. I am a career-person and not a homemaker. In my ideal world, should I decide to have a child, myself, my partner(s) and family would be in a position where we could sit down and make a rational decision about how we will distribute the caregiving for our child, and we should then be able to negotiate this with our respective employers. At no point is it fair to expect that, simply for being in possession of a womb, I should be the one to rear and raise a child mostly alone for at least 6 months. We need to start accepting men as equally capable of being caregivers in order to give women half a chance of being able to thrive in the workplace.

Tied in to all of this thinking is the whole notion of woman-as-a-caregiver, including some notions which are quite damaging that I don’t want to touch upon here, such as the burden of shame placed upon women who choose not to breastfeed their children.

I want to live in a world where my partner(s) and I could raise our children equally, and where at no point did my child ever feel that mummy was the one who stayed home to look after them and daddy (if indeed there is a daddy) was the one who went out to work and earned the money. Breaking this dichotomy starts way back at maternity and paternity leave, and the ability of women to compete with their labor in a capitalist marketplace.