David Widgery: “Why do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts”

For Valentine’s Day we are reposting an article about love and sex under capitalism, by the activist and journalist David Widgery (1947-1992). Written in 1972, this piece was first published by Oxford Left Review in the October 2013 issue.

Sexual love is the movement that breaks the rules; an uprising of the senses that abolishes propriety. Time alters. A gasp lasts an hour, a night separates into heaps of minutes, a conversation from bar to bed to bus stop – has it been a fortnight or a day? Objects floor you with sudden meanings; a weed becomes a flower beside a canal that is an ocean. A shell swells with feelings. Touches echo, nerves misbehave, hands ricochet. Eyes kindle and melt in a world of constantly altering surfaces. Love offers a glimpse of the most intimate communication that we have experienced. Everything that’s said about love is true, except the happy ending.

Mark Rothko's Red on Maroon Section 5, 1959
Mark Rothko’s Red on Maroon Section 5, 1959

To love in capitalism has an especially bitter intensity. It is to repossess feelings to which we have come foreign. Emotions that come without rules or prices or power attached to them. In love’s bed, mutual subjectivity allows absolute altruism. The precious is given without price, the delight lies in delighting another. We recover that which we have been taught to withhold, avoid, or have had shaken out of us by parents and teachers and each other. It is a state of revolution against the discoloured flatness which is the ‘normal’, sleep-work-play life. Lovers win permission for a short parole to trail after the ditch-flowers, to stare through the swirls of harbour water to the stone, and become entranced by the dart and hover of storm clouds. Sexual love cannot be hoarded, accumulated or displayed. Neither moth nor rust can corrupt it.

In general, the individualism so avidly developed in us by the capitalist system is for external application. We are persuaded to distrust our emotions when they conflict, as they usually do, with competitive success. If we are going to ‘get somewhere’ and ‘make something of ourselves’, education not experience should be our guide. The adverts school us, the slogans batter us down. Get without giving. Take what you can. Look after No. 1. ‘The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being’, wrote Marx. But even the bourgeoisie flounders on love which it is obliged to honour, however much it loathes its expression. For love is a zone of subjectivity which also has official approval, a precarious holiday where feelings and finance are supposed to rule. Love allows you, briefly, to return to what was once yourself.

It is not hard to see why such an unruly state of mind has to be strictly rationed and kept controlled with greeting cards, marriage licenses, and marzipan cakes. It is unpredictable, disorderly, and bad for industrial relations. It’s too simple, too difficult, and doesn’t consume enough. For the effective growth of commerce, it should only occur once in life, its emotions must be surrounded with regulations, icing sugar and lace, made as well-behaved as possible. It would be easier of it didn’t exist, this love, and for many it never does. But it has proved quite impossible to remove the gnaw or eradicate the itch. So it has been turned into something quite different, a mouldy, consoling sort of emotion which, for men, is made palatable by bouts of ‘sexy’ sexuality which must be purchased or forced rather than discovered. Sex itself must be turned into work, with its own rules and games. It is forced back into the black sack of marriage, a contract to feel in a matter whose very essence lies in its voluntary nature.

It is not just a case of love ‘withering under constraint’, as Blake – one of the first rebels against the laws of trade, marriage, and scholarship – thought it. Love is buried by love’s forms, while sexual love becomes an acted insincerity.

The echoing sense of unbroken subjectivity is made silly and impossible to sustain. Such love needs more space than five football fields. That kind of love becomes, in practice, a privilege for the rich. The rest of us are left to read about the affairs of ballet dancers and the loves of princesses. Ordinary love is locked up in its own company, given guards called Jealousy and Fidelity, taken out in public once a month, and stifled to death beneath the TV and the nappies. The underside of love surfaces; passion now wants its penalties. A once equal love capsizes and becomes itself the subject of the division of labour. The man is the human being who has to be kept fuelled and sustained, fit to do his stuff in the outside world. As time passes, it is mysteriously the man who comes to fill this world; placating, anticipating, mollify, sacrificing – in time becoming bitter and lonely by what love has become. The labour of love becomes just another labour.

Love can quickly become a species of tyranny, a word offered and withheld like a dog’s biscuit. A word that turns suddenly into a slap, a trap, a threat. ‘Do you love your mummy?’ means ‘reward me for your dependence’. ‘Mother knifed baby to prove she loved it’, says a local paper. Love becomes involuntary, a system of emotional Green Stamps, promised, stored and exchanged. The platitude that love is close to pain becomes cruelly true. The intensity of violence replaces the gentleness of love. Not just broken alcoholic men but the smart young executives find violence sexy when the fun has gone out of love.

Violence is the occupational disease of a wife. Men beat their spouses regularly who would never harm their dog. But the slow death of love is a different sort of pain, full of guilt and dread and exhaustion. Love becomes an oath or a pang or a regret; the grease in the spoon, the hook in the tune. Women are less keen to forget. That is why they are called sentimental. But mulling over memories while contriving to be lovely-to-come-home-to is apt to produce a mawkish and sickly romanticism – no use to anyone. The evidence of loveless marriage lies in the concealed and unrecorded doorstep grumbles, corner shop intimacies, and smoothed-over-rows in public bars, to be kept from the outside world if it can be.

How the economic set-up of the family mutilates the emotions of love and the unequal relations of the sexes, turning a particular pair of lovers into sparring partners, is not the most important crimes of a system which can starve whole continents and destroy and make ugly entire cities. But it is one of the saddest. Feelings which have regulated life itself are relegated to a mere memory. A glimpse of something becomes a taunt. Once mixed up with marriage and corrupted with cash, love is bent into a certain shape which no longer fits its feelings. People are sorted into twos and marched up to the wedding cake while relatives make bitter jokes behind their backs and hire-purchase agents lick their pencils. The family is a convenient self-financing unit of competitive consumption and indoctrination, the original sweatshop where production, repair, and reproduction are carried out by an unsafe, unpaid, and under-appreciated women workforce. For the state it is cheap at its price. No need to spend on good public transport, comprehensive group care for young children, community centres or restaurants, all which could provide better and cheaper food and entertainment compared to the commercial outfits, if everyone does it at home one by one. Exhaustingly, inefficiently, expensively; the family then sits in front of the TV to watch still more invented happy families serving out their Shreddies. The family provides certain certainties and keeps us all wadded with stupidities. If the family is breaking down, that is the occasion for rejoicing, not dismay. We need to start finding alternatives and demanding the facilities to make them work, not trying to force the broken pieces back together again.

Event of interest in London from midday today: LOVE NOT RAZOR WIRE. Emergency demo against violence towards migrants on the French-UK border.


  1. Thanks for the response Roderick (glad you agree on the article). As I tried to argue above, I think desire can only exist in its real contexts – we can’t know how desire would be experienced and expressed in a system structured completely differently, since it isn’t ‘natural’, it’s inevitably thought about and felt using words, language and emotions structured by the world we live in. I think desire would be likely to shift a lot in a truly communist society, especially around how it relates to gender: what attributes would be considered desirable in a partner would change, and how sexuality is experienced would change, undoubtedly. In contrast to Widgery, I don’t think that “Sexual love is the movement that breaks the rules” – I think it follows a lot of rules. Complicated rules, yes, but rules all the same.

    With that, I’m not saying desire has no root in the body, in the natural urge to reproduce for example – in the sense that it’s partly biological, some parts of it would likely stay the same, or at least similar, in new societies. But biology doesn’t stand alone – it only works in tandem with the environments and social structures we’re embedded in. In some ways, desire is so clearly structured by patriarchal capitalism that it’s easy to see how the systems we live in influence desire. For example, right now a lot of women, both anecdotally and when surveyed, feel desire (sexually and romantically) for men who dominate them, or are ‘superior’ to them in some way. They don’t desire those men *despite* that perceived power, but *because* of it. This is disturbing because it would seem to imply that many women are, whether they like it or not, complicit in perpetuating a really unjust sexist power dynamic by rewarding ‘masculine’ men who don’t respect them. In practice, a lot of women experience this as really contradictory – they know that falling in love with and feeling lust for ‘hypermasc’ men ultimately harms them, and they think these men are dicks and would rather desire more likeable people, but then they also find it really hard to break with their own socialisation, because desire is really deeply conditioned and once you’re an adult, it’s really hard to shift.

    Of course, many women also *don’t* find this masculine type attractive – many women are L(G)BT, asexual, or attracted to very different kinds of men. It’s these different kinds of desire that give me hope that things could be different, and show that modern preferences are not simply ‘natural’ expressions of reproductive urges. And yet the trends of attraction are striking and unsettling, and teach us a lot about how much society’s structure can affect deeply-felt sexual and romantic desires.

    However, to bring it back to the article, I also don’t think Widgery even has a *consciousness* of this kind of experience of love and desire – this messy, contradictory and self-perpetuating downward spiral of loving and lusting after people you don’t even really like. I imagine there are also lots of men analysing their own patterns of desire with some concern (especially those who commit sex crimes, have paedophilic urges, etc) but I also suspect there are lots of men happily going about their dominating without a second thought. (As well as, I feel compelled to point out, the men who *don’t* seek to dominate but who feel inferior for not being able/willing to.)

    I suspect there are more useful understandings of this in, for e.g., Lacan, but I can’t make head nor tail of psychoanalysis most of the time. From summaries I’ve read, it feels much more suited to analysing love and lust than the article above, which is basically Romantic prose two centuries late.

  2. I thought this whole article was a near-incomprehensible mass of purple prose. On Kate’s point about how the difficulties people have with love are much deeper than just the family, it would be good if she could clarify things a little here as I wasn’t sure whether she was saying that these problems are rooted in desire in a sexist world, or whether the problems are rooted in desire itself e.g. they will still exist even under full communism, nor was I very clear on what she thinks the real problems are in themselves.

    By the way Jacobin published an article on this subject for Valentine’s which is also worth a read:


  3. I’m really unconvinced by this article and always was. I think it’s fallacious in lots of ways, especially in the way it presents love as ‘natural’, as if capitalism merely mutates and mutilates what should be a natural outpouring of feeling. That’s not how I understand feeling at all. Feelings are as social and constructed as thoughts are. ‘Love’ as we know it can’t be separated from how we are raised under capitalism. Love can only be understood alongside people’s other, more obviously individualist emotions: envy, possessiveness, greed, desire to accumulate, desire to dominate etc. Love has also got a lovely affirmative side, but it’s possible that a lot of love’s affirmation is to do with how it helps us *achieve* the goals capitalism sets for us – being seen as desirable and attractive and therefore socially successful, for example.

    An example of where the article idealises love: “Sexual love cannot be hoarded, accumulated or displayed.” Yes it can! Plenty of people value themselves by the amount and variety of sex they have, even if that sex is accompanied by love. To be deemed sexually desirable is a form of social power which people can envy you for, and which others resent not having.

    I think this whole article’s perspective is skewed by a kind of ‘free love’ mentality that reigned in socialist/anarchist spaces around the time it was written. It implies that the destruction of the family will necessarily bring us ‘back’ to some ‘natural’ utopian love, where actually the source of love’s painfulness is much deeper rooted than the family: desire itself is pretty fucked up, especially as experienced by women raised in a sexist world. In that sense, this also feels like a very masculine perspective, since it relates people’s difficulties in love only to the structure of the family, and not to desire itself. Even the feeling of desire and love can be the source of deep confusion and misery for women because of what we’re socialised to fall in love *with*, and how we’re treated by those who love us. This is as true outside of marriage as in it.


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