This is the fourth instalment of Red Flags, Novara Media’s advice column for anti-capitalists (here’s the first, second and third). Inspired by our columnist Sophie K Rosa’s book, Radical Intimacy, Red Flags will explore how capitalism fucks up our intimate lives – not just our romantic relationships, but also our friendships, home lives, family ties, and experiences of death and dying – and what we can do about it.
From sex to housing, work crises to climate crises, Red Flags will offer guidance rooted in radical politics and informed by psychoanalytic theory. Its advice won’t be prescriptive or dogmatic, but will instead invite readers to consider the roots of the problems that plague us all. “I don’t believe in ‘right’ answers,” says Sophie. “I have no idea how to live either. But I do believe in creating spaces for dialogue and reflection – and I hope Red Flags can do just that.”
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How do I make close friends in a big city? Almost all my close friends have left over the last few years and now I only really have acquaintances and friends from my department (I’m a PhD student), but many of them are doing fieldwork all over the world.
It’s starting to get me down; it’s not like I never have social time, but I don’t have any people who I’m really tight with or regularly hang out with. I feel quite isolated, and it also feels a bit embarrassing if I’m honest. I’m 29 and I don’t want to turn 30 with no besties to celebrate with! I’m trying to put myself out there more and be social but it’s tough to make meaningful connections. Everyone is so busy and I’m plenty busy with my studies, too.
Any advice on making friends when you’re living in the cold, cold heart of the capitalist machine?
– No Besties
Dear No Besties,
Feeling isolated can be so painful. Also, you are far from alone in feeling alone; a lack of “meaningful connections” is a common source of suffering. This reality is both tragic: so many of us experience shame-laden loneliness; and hopeful: there are so many of us longing for intimacy, ready to share it
As you observe, existing in “the capitalist machine” is not conducive to friendship. Unless we have a very unusual kind of life, most of us spend much of our time working to survive and much of the time that we aren’t working, recovering from work. Socialising is all too often a rudimentary add-on to work life: after-work pints, work parties, lunch-break coffees.
The fabric of our lives under capitalism makes it difficult to discover and cultivate friendship. As you write, “Everyone is so busy and I’m plenty busy […] too.” With certain efforts, it isn’t inconceivable that we might be able to carve out more opportunities for friendship to flourish in our lives as they stand – but our material realities place intransigent limits on these possibilities. A concrete example: I was looking forward to a certain party this month as an opportunity to nurture nascent relationships, but I ended up feeling too overwhelmed and tired to go because of work stress.
I’m going to come at the problem from a different angle – one that I hope might leave you feeling like you have more agency. You haven’t mentioned your sexuality, but I believe that the dominant straight culture we are all impacted by robs us of and depletes friendship. We can’t escape this hegemony but I do think that by interrogating it, we discover more options for intimacy.
For starters, in heteronormative semantics, a friendship is not even ‘a relationship’. I think it is important to challenge this language because words are, in an important sense, how we make meaning in the world.
In straight culture, friendship is often something that is structured around the pursuit of a romantic relationship, rather than a form of relationship with intrinsic value. Friends can be positioned as ‘wingmen’, as stag, hen-do and wedding attendees, as shoulders to cry on after a breakup. When people form nuclear households, friendship is often demoted further; ‘catch-ups’ might happen every few months at best. Worse, friendships can be treated as outright threats to monogamous coupledom. Of course, there are countless exceptions, where friendships are tended to such that they flourish – but more often than not, it seems to me that our society’s reification of a particular kind of life diminishes friendship.
It needn’t be this way. Friendship looks quite different in some communities, especially among queer people. Both unavoidably and by choice, queer relationships of all kinds often don’t abide by heteronormative mores. As a result, they might challenge binaries – romantic versus platonic, sexual versus non-sexual, monogamous versus non-monogamous, partner versus friend – in ways that allow a reorientation towards friendship.
I think polyamorous ideals can be useful in this respect, too. Both monogamy and polyamory can be injurious to friendship if they entail an investment in the romantic and sexual realm such that friendship is starved. But the notion in polyamory that – with enough intention, care and communication – we might have the capacity to foster multiple committed relationships, is a useful one when it comes to revalorising friendship. I like the idea of ‘platonic polyamory’ – the possibility of multiple loving committed relationships, not necessarily romantic or sexual – and I think it offers us something different to the normative relational ideal of ‘one partner and some friends’.
What if our friendships were taken as ‘seriously’ as romantic partnerships? What if we tended to them with similar levels of attention, energy and commitment? What if our friends could be life partners? Like you, many people want truly “meaningful connections” beyond the couple form.
Coined in 2006 by Swedish feminist and computer scientist Andie Nordgren, ‘relationship anarchy’ proposes that how we construct, conduct and prioritise our relationships could be a creative endeavour. The philosophy advocates for bespoke commitments: collaborative relationships built around the people involved, as opposed to ‘common sense’ approaches and hierarchies. In this way, people we care about should never be relegated to ‘just’ friends.
One of my favourite texts about queer friendship is The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions by Larry Mitchell – a sort of utopian fable, gorgeously illustrated by Ned Asta. In the introduction to its fourth printing, the artist Morgan Bassichis writes of friendship:
“Friendship was not an idea or a status that you took for granted, but something you did, over and over: When your friend is flying into town you find a car and pick them up at the airport, and you take them to get burgers at In-N-Out. When it’s your friend’s birthday, you bake their favourite cake (Earl Grey if you’re lucky) and make them a beautiful card from thick pieces of paper and stickers you have collected for the purpose. When your friend needs a place to stay because they are visiting town or recovering from surgery or getting out of prison, you make a bed from the extra pair of sheets and pillows you keep for visitors, and you leave them a snack in the fridge. In the shadow of structural abandonment, political alienation, family rejection, chronic illness, state violence, and medical neglect, queer friendship saves us.”
I’m coming at your dilemma from this perspective because I think it is a spacious one. Whilst we may not be able to choose to work less in order to make more time for friendship, we can – at least to some extent – choose how we approach and prioritise our relationships. If the relational norms of straightness – which impact us all – can be hostile to friendship, what might other ways of being offer us? I don’t think it matters whether we consider ourselves queer or polyamorous, or not. In fact, I think holding certain identity markers somewhat gently – in the sense of maintaining an openness about who we are and who we may become in relation to other people – could be precisely what is most generative for building fulfilling relationships.
We can’t – and shouldn’t seek to – control how anyone else relates to us, but we can at least to some extent choose how we construct our relational values. If we can conceive of relationships as something we get to ‘make up’ ourselves – in collaboration with others – then ‘making friends’ could take on whole new meanings. You seem clear about what is important to you in your relationships, about what you are missing. How might you befriend people who share your desires? I don’t know you or your interests so it’s difficult for me to suggest specific things. Recently, I’ve seen people’s social circles blossom via community basketball groups, reading and writing groups, and meet-ups oriented towards queer family building. I know your people are out there – people who you will relate to, people who would be so glad to relate to you.