Sunday, August 24, 2008

Alternative Living: Polyamory

During the debate on abortion rights earlier this year we heard arguments put forward once again which claimed that abortion rights were in the realm of the "personal" and therefore separate from "political" questions such as war, racism and so forth. This was explicitly rejected by myself and others who argued that women's rights were not "personal" and therefore secondary, but actually a fundamental part of any socialist struggle for a better future.

I want to now push the boundaries of that argument forward and look at alternative living that has been previously considered "personal" and therefore seen as separate from how socialist feminists live and indeed how socialists - male and female - actually function in society.

I am going to explore the concept of how socialists, radicals and others fighting for a better society might consciously live in a way that encompasses more than going to meetings and demonstrations, but also includes living and having relationships in a way that we think may be more fair, more progressive and more in line with wanting to make a better world than traditional forms.

In this context I am going to posit why I think socialists and socialist feminists should have honest and possibly open relationships. I can already hear the objections of many people claiming that I have no place to make such a claim and that this has nothing to do with politics - but I think it may. Just as I am an environmentalist and as such live in a way that means I do not waste energy unnecessarily and recycle my goods, so too should I seek to make my personal relationships - whether they involve friends, lovers or companions - ones that mirror the sort of personal relationships that I envision we would have in a better society.

For me, this means being polyamorous. Being polyamorous has many definitions but the most important part of poly is honesty, openness and communication. Of course one need not identify as poly in order to live this way in a relationship, but I think it helps. Why? Because having an open relationship based on these things discourages dishonesty and encourages everyone to be honest with one another at all times. Does it always work out that way? No, but I believe it has more potential for creating a culture of honesty than strict monogamy does.

In addition, traditional concepts of monogamy entail notions of "ownership" whether explicit or implicit which encourages people to rely on other individuals instead of groups of people or broader communities. This is not to say that people who are monogamous all think or even act this way but rather that it is difficult not to fall into such patterns when practicing monogamy. As socialist feminists we can recognise that monogamy is largely a social construct which complements capitalism's necessity to reproduce the working class and provides a supposedly stable situation by which this reproduction can occur.

In reality, monogamy is violated time and again and people appear to desire sex, love and emotional relationships outside of their couple pairing at some point in their relationship. Normally when this is broken, dishonesty is the solution to situations where people fall in love with another person - or indeed recognise that they are in love with two or more people at the same time. They have what they believe is no alternative. This is due to the a variety of factors including the myth that love is "zero-sum" - ie that loving one person means loving someone else less as a result. This is patently not true. Further, many people will have extreme feelings of guilt, loss of self worth and so forth that come from believing they are doing "something wrong" by loving and caring about someone outside of the couple. Again, these feelings of guilt are due to social factors and are completely unnecessary if honesty and openness are fundamental tenets of the relationship from the beginning.

Many people, socialists, radicals and social activists, do not live in a way that gels with their view of a better world when it comes to personal relationships. They cheat, lie, hurt each other - whether intentional or not - and practice their personal relationships in much the same way as any other person in Western societies. But this need not be the case. It does not simply have to be the way it is. If we can advocate social change, up to and including revolution, then why can we not also advocate different and new ways of living and treating each other in personal relationships as part of the whole package of change?

But why is openness necessary? Why can't monogamous, socially aware couples simply agree to be honest? The answer is that they can, but the question is - why limit ourselves? As mentioned above, reliance on a single individual for emotional, sexual and other needs solely and completely is not necessarily desirable. Under the current system, the stresses and strains on individuals are enormous. Whether it comes to raising children, sexual demands, work demands and so forth. Why do we live in such a way that we insist that only one other individual in our lives be responsible for all of this when, giving an alternate way of living and loving we can greatly expand our social groupings, carers for children and sexual and emotional experiences?

I am interested in what others think about this issue, so please do contribute to the discussion in the comments box.

For further information on the concept of Polyamory see: Polyamory? What, like, two girlfriends?

For a very interesting weekly programme which explores Polyamory see: PolyWeekly