Love and the bourgeois family Ruthless Criticism

Love and the bourgeois family:
Scene of happiness, psychological terror and mass murder

[Notes on a December 16, 2010 lecture by Peter Decker in Nürnberg, Germany]

The impropriety of the sequence in the title is striking. I will defend it by explaining how all the steps from family quarrels up to murder and suicide are mired in the pursuit of happiness and the struggle for it. Empirically, it is common knowledge that there aren't that many reasons for violent crime – property, power and politics, wounded honor and unrequited love; in terms of numbers, the latter predominates. Still, very few want to stay clear of this dangerous area. The mass media is full of love, its everlastingness, its problems. Young and old are forever entertained by it – because, for them, it is the most important subject in their lives. A man and a woman take up together, build a nest, and (with or without children) become happy – it's always the same story, but never boring for one simple reason: everything depends on this snippet of life, love and a relationship; this decides whether a life has been either successful or a failure. Being single is seen as a failed version of life: they have a hard time finding someone. Everything else – money, career, beliefs, hobbies – pales in comparison. Love is clearly the priority of people in our society. When the focus is on capitalism, they are bored to death; but they are always interested in love.

I. The private sphere: realm of freedom

A part of one's lifetime, one that is not all that big, decides everything, assigns all other spheres their place, and gives life meaning. “Here I can be the person I am!” – here one leaves behind the realm of duties, earning a living, mandatory tasks, the stresses imposed by competition in which rivals constantly try to take away one's job or market position. The private sphere begins after obligations have been met. With the spare time and money and energy that's left over, a person goes into their private life and finally arrives at what really matters: “Now it may and should be all about me and my satisfaction!”

The times are gone when private life was determined by lots of moral and state duties. Marriage is no longer mandatory; divorce is socially accepted. The state completely functionally secures its interest in its moral as well as biological nucleus without having to prescribe lifestyles. It gets its services without requiring people to marry. Everything is a private matter as long as adults freely consent to it (it is different for children). People do what they do in their private lives because they want to, not because they have to. They want to get married and have children; they commit freely. And there is only one criteria: it should satisfy them. If we stick to this idea, then what they desire with each other is not very nice, even if it starts nicely.

II. Love and the love ideal
In their free time, people search for love and Mr./Ms. Right

The world of love is imagined as an alternative to the world of competition: it is not one of cold calculation, of one's advantage at the expense of the other's, of conflict – but of togetherness.

1. Love: its Basis

Love is being attracted to and the appreciation or esteem for the individual characteristics of another person. It is different from respect or friendship in which one shares a common interest. Love aims at the individual characteristicts of the other person. It is not: I like him because of specific characteristics, I don't care about the other characteristics (like it is with a friend when one just pursues a common interest together, putting the others aside). It is about a total impression of the details: the body, looks, smell, personality. That's what we find attractive or like in somebody else. Therein one also gives up shame and the otherwise taken for granted distance – physically and generally.

2. The search for the Right One

Love flourishes in the bourgeois world. Before, much was regulated differently (and still is in other countries: marriage is arranged by parents, dating takes place according to economic criteria, etc.). The reality of the love ideal in the bourgeois world is that the world is full of difficulties when it comes to finding the right partner. When one's willingness and interest in love becomes the tough search for the Right One, this goes somewhat differently than when one looks for a fling. What makes it difficult is that a huge high bar is raised. Another person is searched for who stands up to the demand of being one's total counterpart: in every way positive, pleasant, right. There is a critical look at the possible affection – namely, whether the partner, through their characteristics, guarantees my constant satisfaction, my lasting interest in him or her. It is the ideal of two individuals who are like two halves who have to find each other.

This demanding attitude for complete correspondence then has its flip side: I want to be totally accepted by the other. I want the other to love me as I am; for everything about me to be affirmed. One wants to be recognized as the total counterpart of the other.

• Women are always suspicious that they are loved for their beauty or sexual desirableness; men because of their money or reputation. They do not want that! They do not mean for what is best about me or for something good about me. They want to be accepted as the whole person beyond all the qualities they have to offer.

• In the middle of a relationship, in their daily interaction with each other, a question arises: “Do you still really love me?” Here the relationship as it is, the common interests and activities, what they do together, is not sufficient. One asks beyond that whether the other person gives me their totally positive attitude. Each provoked avowal of “yes, I love you” is indeed seen through as phony. One has to say it. This total devotion can't be satisfied by any practical devotion. The doubt will always linger. It can't be proved.

This strange request for total correspondence and total acceptance – active as well as passive – is a highly unreasonable demand and, secondly, one can only get it through self-deception. Another person just has their will and their interests – and does not exist in the world for me and is not customized for me. Correspondence is neither to be expected nor is it reasonable to wish for. In the falling in love phase, the claim is satisfied by a certain self-deception: one sees only the correspondence and not the rest: “blinded by love.” It is short-lived. But the matter is not finished with simple self-deception.

Already the choice of a partner is not a happy, laidback experience left to chance: let's see whether affection develops and live with it if it doesn't. It takes place very self-consciously and calculatingly: money, status, education, appearance – everything should justify the choice and enhance one in front of oneself and others. The other is examined for whether he or she is a means for my satisfaction. Most relationships don't start with falling in love, but with calculation. More than 33% of relationships today are initiated through the Internet (not including those who don't fall in love). This is not the same as falling in love when one normally looks for someone to love. It is different because knowledge about interests, etc., is not decisive for falling in love. With Internet dating, one begins with what the other has to offer: can he or she show a decent income is not the same as finding somebody attractive. One does not start by knowing the person and developing a feeling, but compares profiles and then meets a person to see whether a feeling develops. It is certainly not antithetical to the world of competition, calculation, the profit mentality: it is not flirting and getting hot for the other, but a concentrated search for the best achievable partner – because the purpose of dating is already certain: a permanent relationship that holds for life. This is the perspective of young people at parties, discos, and Internet match services.

If it is the other way around, then it has a very derogatory reputation: a one-night stand, someone to fuck. This is also not a laid-back relation. Short term relationships are viewed as negative alternatives to long term ones: something that just does not work out.

3. Marriage – for most, still the goal of the search for a partner

At a wedding, the solemn promise is given of permanent mutual obligation to partnership, support, help – in front of relatives, friends, church, state. The validity of the common bond becomes objectified. Now it is serious: love is removed from caprice and transitoriness. One happily assumes not only moral duties, but also legally binding ones. But duties assumed out of love are only duties if it is assumed that the love will grow cold with time. The marriage vow calculates on the transitoriness of love and wants to commit oneself – and above all the other – to the requirements of the common bond. The great love ideal is actually an emergency program. People search for security, knowing that they won't remain attractive for very long. They seek to obligate themselves to somebody in order to have somebody.

III. Marriage

Beginning with the best intentions, the possessive love ideal is made true: one does things to make the loved one happy and put oneself in a good mood and thereby forge the lever of one's own happiness. One makes a nice home, which first requires a huge financial expenditure. From now on, all the burdens of the bourgeois competitive struggle are taken on for the family and the loved one; career stress and overtime add another notch. That one wants to organize a nice life after work is now the subjective reason to throw oneself into working life and put up with everything. This is the moral-educational value of marriage for the state and the economy. Wild young men all become decent and hardworking if they are married – not in the sense that they are forced to marry, but because they want to, and then they do everything that the world requires of them to earn money because of their relationship. After work comes housework – as a rule, for the woman rather than the man. Now there is little time and energy left for a nice time together.

Each partner feels neglected in their own way. Discontent with the partner is expressed in such a way that one reckons up for him or her the concessions which one has made for their common happiness – and for which one is now missing the return. “You never have time for me,” “you do not listen to me,” “you are never in the mood for sex when I need it.” Everyone has their reason for dissatisfaction with the other.

People who live together sometimes have reasons to quarrel. But when married couples are dissatisfied with each other, they argue in a quite specific way.

• “I bring home the money,” “I do the housework,” “I gave up my friends for you,” “I pay attention to my figure for you,” etc. etc. These tedious quarrels run as an obligation to the marital community – to which the other in each case just does not attach as high an importance. It is the reproach of the community, thus that the loved one owes something to which one has a claim. Here people have searched for a world for themselves apart from the commodity exchange of egoistic private owners and decided to make a common cause on the basis of fondness, pooling together income and expenses; it should not be about exploiting and taking advantage of the other – and what do they bring to it? A complex, highly moral form of exchange in which the price often does not seem to one or both partners to stand in a good relation to what they get for it: they exchange selflessness, financial care, in order to get the same selflessness from the partner – and pay attention to the relation of giving and taking. “I always think only of us and you always think only of yourself!” By contrast, the exchange of commodities and services seems objective, external to the individual, detachable, much more harmless. The exchange between married couples is full of possessiveness.

IV. Love as a legal claim on the partner: loyaly, jealousy, honor

Loyalty is not something that arises or not, but a duty and a sacrifice undertaken for the relationship and the partner. Love outside of marriage is adultery because it would violate a right of the partner. Reconciliation is required: the forgiveness of the partner whose claim has been hurt; i.e. the one who has been cheated on opens up a big debt book and enlarges the plus column – in order to claim a quid pro quo.

Jealousy appears to be anguish about the (possible) loss of a partner, but it is something else: the anguish would also be the recognition that one can do nothing here. Love is a free relation; when the other no longer likes it, there is nothing to demand. Jealousy is a self-confident sense of entitlement to the loyalty of the other, a kind of ownership claim on the other: you belong to me, and I will not let you deprive me of your function for my happiness. When one acts, argues, or stalks out of jealousy, the damage which is supposed to be averted is no longer seen in the loss of the partner's love – that is already assumed as a prerequisite – but the damage to their own right to the other person, with whom one's own self-image stands and falls.

• People can't stand to picture that their own wife or husband can or may be just as intimate with another as with them. What is pure and natural with them seems dirty to them, maybe even forced.

People defend their self-esteem. Everything about them that is respectable, lovable – father, companion, sexual partner, one's general attractiveness as a person – their whole self is denied to them. They defend this self-image – their honor – very egomaniacally. Murder out of jealousy is definitely not an attempt to save the marriage (even in its degenerated form) or to get back the lover (even in the form of a love slave), but the self-defense of the violated owner of the love of the other.

V. Happiness – the Ideal of Compensation

It all began with: “You are my one and only,” “my life,” “my treasure” – at best an unforgiving exaggeration, but meant seriously, a terribly excessive demand on a partner and a partnership. It is expected and required to bring happiness – that strange condition of which Goethe said: “Stay a while, you are so beautiful!” Happiness = to be perfectly content = total satisfaction of individuality. Its nonsense; any interest, any activity grants its respective satisfaction when it succeeds; and when it is over, one searches for the next interest and its satisfaction. Total, definitive satisfaction, reconciliation with the world in general – this is the ideal of a schoolboy. That one should be fully satisfied by a relationship is an ideological overload on any real interest of people in each other.

Everyone fails before this ideal – inevitably.

• Many marriages break up because both partners demand their comprehensive satisfaction. They separate, but do not criticize or overcome this standpoint: the next partner, the same program.

• Many couples give up – something that is also not the same as seeing through and discarding the pursuit of happiness. They get used to the fact that their partner no longer gives them what they once chose him or her for, and settle for companionship so that they don't have to go through life completely alone: a negative form of arrangement.

• This also can be seen in not a few old couples' claims: they despise their partner as the unsuitable means of their happiness and blame him or her for their whole unsatisfactory life, which should surely have turned out positive. She lets him feel her disdain, vigorously shows a quest for retaliation on the one who robbed her of her happiness: long-standing accusations, humiliation in front of third parties to demonstrate how little she wanted to be stuck with this dweeb to whom she is related by marriage.

• People who see their overall life as unsuccessful and badly turned out sometimes execute this judgment on themselves and the culprit. Hence the daily reported family dramas. All these barbarities are forms in which the pursuit of happiness and the right to happiness are clung to in opposition to the practical course of this pursuit – and the pursuer of happiness still makes this his highest aim, contrary to his real right to exist.

One sees the compensatory character of happiness in an area of life that should not only provide the satisfaction which belongs specifically to it, but totally; it should make life seem completely successful, turning a life balance positive: it should compensate for the damages incurred. This includes a negative and at the same time totally affirmative judgment about those sectors of life which make up the bigger part of waking life: the world of work and earning a living. It is viewed as a damage, a subtraction from life, a burden – for which private life compensates.

VI. “The most important thing in life” – missing the point in a big way

The nastinesses of private life are the result of an attitude: “I am apolitical, I am not concerned about the state and the economy, but about my family!” “I do not care about capitalism, I use it only as a precondition, as a means for what is really important to me.”

Capitalism and its jobs are not, however, the means to a comfortable, rich life; rather, people here are harnessed to an economic purpose which is just not about consumption and good living. In fact, humans in this society live in order to work. The economy is not their means; rather they are the means of the economy. They insist very uncritically that it is the other way around: that this economy can be used as a means for a nice life, that it compensates for the effort and justifies it – and this takes its revenge.


That people work to live might be their subjective point of view, but objectively they live to work. After all, the condition they have to fulfill in order for them to earn a livelihood is that they have to work for someone else’s profit. That is not a natural condition, but is predicated on their exclusion from the existing wealth and the means to produce it. Therefore, they can’t decide whether they earn a livelihood or not. Whether they get a chance to earn a livelihood by working or not is a decision that others – capitalists – make in accordance with their own interest in turning money into more money. And if that is the condition imposed on their livelihood, then that is the purpose of their livelihood. That is also why people's private lives are for the most part occupied with fulfilling the various tasks that need to be fulfilled to go to work the next week – from shopping, cooking, cleaning and washing to sleeping. For the majority, there is little time or money for anything else. What better proof that the purpose of their free time is the mere reproduction of their labor power than the fact that that is all they manage to do in their free time!

Of course, most people don't see it that way. They take their working lives, regardless of how much they might be aware that they work for the enrichment of others, as their means for their own private ends. Regardless of the fact that they spend their lives “busting their butt” for the company, and regardless of how little time, energy and means they have for their own interests, they remain convinced that their work life is "actually" a means for their own personal life aims.


Making their working life pay off isn't to be confused with the banal and rational interest in enjoying the fruits of one's labor, and doing so as much as possible; rather this means that their free time and their personal lives have to “make up for” the sacrifices of their working life, to compensate for the sufferings they endure during the working week. That the only way to deal with the damages they suffer in their working life lies in the way they organize their personal life proves that their working life isn't their means at all, but lies beyond their control. In a rational society, or in any situation where somebody works for their own ends, things look much different: If the working process was ruinous, one would change the working process. But since that isn't an option for workers, the only place to turn is their private life.

That is also the mistake people make when they put their energy, effort, and interest into compensating for that harm. They thereby take up an entirely uncritical stance toward their working lives. They might complain about it constantly, but they have accepted it and decided to treat is as a condition that just has to be fulfilled in order to enjoy their private lives.

The difference between “enjoyment” in the banal sense of the term and compensation is made apparent by the stressful and often desperate way that people go about enjoying their weekends, their hobbies, their vacations, their nights out on the town. If everything doesn't go right, it's a disaster; they have blown their one chance to have a good time, to relax, to do something interesting, and now it's back to the grind. That this demand on their free time is nearly impossible to fulfill, and constantly conflicts with the necessities of reproducing their labor-power for the next week, is something that every worker learns first hand in one way or the other.


So it is not only a mistake to deal with a ruinous working life by seeking compensation in one's private life, but it is also a well-nigh impossible endeavor. The latter is something that most people learn first hand. The conflict between the interest in compensating and the reality of compensation is, as G.W. Bush would say, a “decision point.” One can choose to become a critic of work in capitalism – a highly unpopular decision. Much more popular is the effort to come to terms with their ruinous working life and their unsatisfying personal life, their ruinous working life. Instead of criticizing the reasons for their unfulfilled material interests, they criticize these material interests themselves and look for a “higher” form of fulfillment, which in fact is nothing but a glorification of their sufferings and sacrifices: “I don't need money, I just want to be happy”; “Life isn't just about material things, it's about being content.” These people have abandoned the world of material interests and material disappointments, and instead busy themselves with their own attitude towards these disappointments – often with the help of religion or spirituality.

The other option, which is just as popular as this sort of anti-materialism, and which usually goes hand in hand with it, is to insist that their personal life make their working life pay off. And here we have the search for compensation in its most familiar and unpleasant form: the insistence on their right to a fulfilled personal life. First of all, this involves a radical, and yet all too common, reinterpretation of what it is they do each week when they go into work: When they march into the office or the factory, they are not merely coping with the imposed necessities of earning a living in capitalism, and they are certainly not functioning as a tool for the enrichment of the company; rather they are fulfilling duties and accumulating entitlements to be redeemed in their personal life. And once they step out of the office or factory and punch their cards, they confront their families, friends, loved ones, even waitresses and especially fellow commuters with the rights they have just acquired, and insist that others fulfill the services to which they are entitled.


On the one hand, this is something that bourgeois individuals do in any part of their personal life. The activities they choose for doing so are generally a matter of social custom; they change over time and are drawn from the more or less narrow assortment of pursuits generally accepted and popular in society, e.g., shopping and sports. On the other hand, when it comes to living a “fulfilled” personal life, one sphere of activity spans the ages and remains at the top of the heap: love.

First, it derives from the nature of what it is that people seek in their private lives when they seek compensation. Only rarely does the desire for compensation content itself with having a good time at the weekend and over the holidays. People that use their free time for just having a good time are generally looked down upon, at least once they have reached a certain age. After that, they are either considered hedonists, or are pitied for their naivete and their egotism, which will certainly condemn them to be alone when they get old. People's personal lives usually have to prove something more comprehensive and abstract. It's not just about balancing out the bad, working days with the good, free days; it's about finding “fulfillment.”

On the one hand, and as pointed out above, this is a ridiculous abstraction, one that reeks of unfulfilled needs and the desire to compensate for damages and disappointments: “I don't need luxury, just fulfillment.” Although that might seem humble, like a willingness to come to terms with material poverty, in fact it represents an imposing demand: total compensation and “happiness.” Independent of this or that interest, I want to feel satisfied; despite this or that damage, I want to be happy.

That happiness in turn delivers the crucial proof: I am a successful individual, not just successful at meeting other people's demands. It is with this abstract, all-encompassing, compensatory aim that people turn to their love life: a specific kind of relationship in which “individuality” plays a basic role. And with this imposing demand, they turn these relationships into something else entirely: a particularly ugly, burdensome, desperate, and even dangerous affair.

Reading Tip:
Chapter 8: Private life – on happiness and its failure in pleasure and love
Psychology of the Private Individual:
Critique of Bourgeois Consciousness