Intimate Comrades: Speaking and acting personally and politically

In his review of Sophie K. Rosa's book "Radical Intimacy," Ian Parker explores the book's key arguments about the need to rethink personal relationships, care, and community in order to challenge the oppressive and alienating effects of capitalism on our intimate lives.

 

The title of this new book on “Radical Intimacy” by Sophie K Rosa should, she says, have been titled “Intimate Comrades,” but Pluto got nervous and thought it would be too niche. Well, I guess we are these days a bit niche, but this is a very nice book, written for us and for folks like us. And I guess if we need, as this book argues, to take seriously “connection, care and community,” and to take on board the arguments it makes about “relationships, social reproduction and kinship,” we should be able to weather the storms of neoliberalism and together find a way to break out of this wretched miserabilist prison that commodifies our lives and our feelings.

Personal

The book is grounded in the host of feminist and anti-racist and radical disability discussions that came in the wake of the insistence that the left must attend to the “personal” as something that is also intrinsically political. That is sometimes tough, even threatening to us comrades, but it is crucial to embed how we relate to each other in the wider political struggle to collectively change the world. Sometimes it does feel too much, and much in this book resonated with my own experience of working in different left organisations, dealing with the complex tangle of interpersonal rivalries that beset us as much as they beset everyone else.

We keep going because we must, but there are deeply personal affective aspects to our political work, both costs and, Sophie K Rosa reminds us, possibilities. Political movements are draining, and a big part of the exhaustion and hopelessness comes from the array of toxic assumptions and behaviours that are brought in from the world “outside”. This is a world that is also inside us, that disables all of us in different ways and triumphs again and again through different versions of divide and rule that disables and excludes certain categories of people and benefits others.

I dislike political meetings for this reason, but, at the same time I know that retreating, staying isolated at home, refusing to engage in the process of change, will actually end up making me feel worse. The starting point of the book must be our starting point if we are work through this together, that “capitalism psychically and materially predetermines, infiltrates and thwarts our intimate lives”. And, at the same time, we need to learn from the many collective experiments, break-out attempts, new ways of living that anticipate and enact, “prefigure,” the world we are fighting for.

“Capitalism psychically and materially predetermines, infiltrates and thwarts our intimate lives”

This, in its different variants (and different comrades will experience these issues in different ways), lies at the heart of the incredible range of debates and practical initiatives Radical Intimacy gives us. Sophie K Rosa takes us on a whirlwind tour of theories and practices that can energise us to respect our comrades who are experimenting with different ways of living, tackling a range of key issues to do with self-care, romantic love and sex, the family, home, death and friendship.

Political

The book explores each of these issues, harvesting and showing us arguments from “abolition” movements and from decolonial and disability politics, and from queer and trans activism, that are searching for ways out of this time of monsters. Each of these movements have had to engage with a deeper question about political change that connects who we are at our core under disabling and exploitative heteropatriarchal racial capitalism with what we can do to end it. The book is so timely too, fired by anger at the way that each oppressive aspect of capitalism was intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, a pandemic that is by no means over for categories of people that were explicitly or implicitly deemed expendable.

The book reminds us of some hard facts about the nature of our personal lives, the way they are structured in such a way as to reinforce oppression at the very same moment that the realm of the “personal” and the “private” and the “home” appears to be a refuge, a place of safety. It is not. Women are much more likely to be murdered in the home than are men, for example – it is not always a safe space, far from it – and, here is a shocker, “Research shows that whilst men married to women tend to be healthier and live longer, women married to men tend to die younger.” We know this, but what conclusions should we draw from it?

“Research shows that whilst men married to women tend to be healthier and live longer, women married to men tend to die younger.”

There are countless theoretical and practical attempts to live together and care for each other that does not endanger women, for example, and “radical intimacy” might include “relationship anarchy” as an alternative to “traditional coupledom.” So, we are taken into worlds of debate and activism that sometimes impinge on the straight left – including the “cis” comrades who think and feel that their gender and sexuality are tied to the kinds of bodies that are sold to them over and over again, including now through a range of apps that filter out queer challenges to the nuclear family – and some of these worlds edge onto science fiction. An “aromantic manifesto” for example, proposes that “romance is inherently queerphobic.”

That’s bad news for some of us, and even some of the escape attempts lead back into the prison of commodification and misery, tie us all the more closely, intimately, into power. Radical Intimacy does not at all romanticise the alternatives, though it would have weirdly skewed the book to start nit-picking over their faults and the ways they have failed; instead it gently points out, for example, that “Non-normative relationships and sex are not necessarily ‘more radical’.” This is a caution, a reminder, not grounds for dismissing the alternatives, however strange some of them might seem to some of us. You will encounter talk of “comphet,” of the “dementia tax,” of “necropolitics,” and in such a way as to make us think again about what we take for granted. The book reminds of us of Mark Fisher’s comment that “depression” under capitalism subjects us to a sneering voice that tells us that we are failures, and the book will have none of that. It is an optimistic resourceful book.

Care

The book backs up its descriptions with detailed footnotes, many of them in the form of accessible online links, pointing to many paths that we could take, that some of us could take to rethink and challenge the way we have been told we should live, the way we have been told to be “happy.” We don’t need to take all the paths. That isn’t the point of the book. The most radical point the book is making, I reckon, is that we don’t have to live like this, and we don’t need to relive all of the horrors inside the very movements that should be showing us a way out.

“We don’t have to live like this, and we don’t need to relive all of the horrors inside the very movements that should be showing us a way out.”

Most importantly, if we want to together create the conditions for “abundant intimacy,” then we need to acknowledge and respect our comrades who have bravely gone down some of those paths. Each path takes seriously the way that “the softness of care rejects the hard systems that propagate suffering.” They are different paths to comradeship, friendship, to ways of being personally-politically in which we will all end up stronger, more radical, more intimate, comrades.


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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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