November 23, 2019
At playgroup, I made my first proper friends. We played together every day; we told each other “secrets”; I bumped my head against a wall and my new Friends comforted me and rubbed it better and we all spent a morning ramming those 90s red-and-yellow plastic cars into the same wall in retaliation.
Capitalism Is Coming For Your Friendships Now, Too
Twenty-five years on and my friendships involve a lot more discussion of breakups, babies, the housing market and jobs, but remain fundamentally the same in nature. We talk whenever we can; we tell each other secrets; one of us gets dumped or bereaved or talked over in a meeting and we comfort each other and rub it better and spend a morning ramming metaphorical plastic cars into metaphorical walls in retaliation. Because that’s what friends do – isn’t it?
This week, Twitter user Dr Melissa A. Fabello divided opinion when she suggested things might be more complicated. In a“template” for “respond[ing] to someone if you don’t have the space to support them,” Fabello writes: “I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity/helping someone else who’s in crisis/dealing with some personal stuff right now and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later date or time] instead/do you have someone else you can reach out to?” The template concludes a thread about the importance of seeking “consent for emotional labour.”Related... My Best Friend Is Getting A Husband But We're Still Each Other's First Love That Fabello’s post sparked the response it did says a lot about the societal moment we find ourselves in. In recent years, the internet has jumped wholeheartedly onto concepts such as “self-care” and “emotional labour” as we searched for a language to resist a system which cares nothing for us beyond our economic worth. “Self care” gave us permission to value ourselves when society wouldn’t; “emotional labour” gave us a way to describe the exploitation of having to keep smiling politely at rude customers over the till when your boss doesn’t care that your gran just died. 
But what began as useful ideas for asserting our humanity and fallibility against cold, unfeeling capitalism steadily became buzzwords, co-opted by corporations tomake us feel like businesses are our friends – and now, it seems, to make us feel like our friendships are businesses. The Instagram hashtag #selfcare, for example, throws up a panoply of inspirational quotes stating that you don’t owe anyone anything, least of all your time. “Venmo me for my emotional labour,”goes the meme.
Of course, concepts and language shift and evolve all the time, and rightly so. But whether they’re applied “correctly” is less significant than whether they’re helpful. Appropriating radical anti-capitalist ideas like emotional labour to describe the basic components of human relationships – while undoubtedly well-meaning – ultimately welcomes the rules of capitalism to some of our last sacred spaces, rather than doing anything to resist them. Related... The Absolute Joy Of Finding Friends For Life Through Your Partner Whether the care we put in to our relationships should really be considered work is debatable, but perhaps more important is the implication that labour, emotional or not, is intrinsically bad. We fight for labour rights because capitalism exploits workers, not because all work is in and of itself exploitative. The concept of “emotional labour” gave us a useful way to talk about the uneven distribution of certain tasksin heterosexual relationships orbetween people of different races or classes – but the logical conclusion is to distribute those tasks more equally rather than arguing they shouldn’t exist. In fact, they’re often the very things that inject joy and community into life in the face of capitalism’s cool disconnection.
We’re all allowed to decide how much we can give at any particular moment, and we all prioritise on the basis of multiple different factors including our own responsibilities and mental wellbeing. We already do this through the constant decisions we make in the course of navigating everyday life. People recovering from trauma and neurodiverse people – those that a number of Twitter users suggested might benefit from Fabello’s template – already do it too, finding and creating strategies and tools that work for them and those who love them. That we all deserve mutually fulfilling relationships which fit with our unique lives and needs isn’t up for debate. 
But when we start to see all relationships as inherently transactional, with care as the currency, we lose sight of the fact that supporting the people we love without caveat or condition is, in itself, a deeply nourishing act that helps us grow and learn and understand what it is to be human. Far from a one-sided deal, it gifts us the invaluable opportunity to be part of something beyond ourselves.
Life is messy and hard and complicated; even more so under a capitalism which doesn’t care about us. The power we have within it is our ability to empathise, to find common cause and solidarity, to insist on acting collectively in a system that relies on our isolation. Sometimes it’s inconvenient to support someone and sometimes it’s difficult to love them. That we so often choose to do it anyway is one of humanity’s greatest strengths.
Eve Livingston is a freelance journalist.Related... 'It Saved My Life': 5 Initiatives Helping Men Open Up And Foster Friendships My Friend Wasn’t There For Me During Breast Cancer. Here’s Why I’m Not Bitter Don’t Diss My Doodle Poll, We'd Never Meet Up Otherwise
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