All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.
The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels
This sprung to mind as I was walking across Old Street, and spotted this vast billboard staring down at the traffic below.
Surely this isn't advertising what I think it is? But yes, it is. Note the wedding ring falling quietly out of the company logo. Although quite how the union jack fits into this is anyone's guess. Are they saying that the British invented infidelity? I always thought that was the French.
I was aware that such agencies existed, from the small box adverts one sees in the back pages of respectable bourgeois publications such as Prospect and Private Eye, usually nestled in between an advertisement for ceramics classes, offers of group holidays to the Dordogne, and something on the border between philosophy and self-help. But if the above advert is anything to go by, the vendors of 'discrete' adult introductions are about to lose much of their discretion.
I don't wish to do The Daily Mail's job for them and initiate moral panic, but this is surely yet another frontier for consumer capitalism to breach, to rival Sunday opening hours (Thatcher) and the mainstreaming of lap-dancing clubs (Blair). At the risk of sounding naive, I can't help suspecting that these expansions in moral possibility are supply-led, rather than demand-led. As Schumpeter noted, there is a difference between 'need' and 'effective demand', and the job of the entrepreneur is to spot things that people don't yet know they want.
Of course infidelity is as old as fidelity. But it is interesting to consider what happens once it is administered and economised. Firstly, it must surely become considerably less fun, as its taboo is lifted. I don't doubt that there are people many years into marriage who seek out infidelity in a mundane way, to rival the search for other consumer goods; they may be the initial target of Ashley madison. But beyond these people, infidelity is being parcelled up as safe and predictable, for those who presumably did their best to steer clear of it, until (for whatever unforeseen reason) they couldn't resist it. Like hipsterism, the promise of administered infidelity is to have one's cake and eat it, to experience the rush of living on the margins without any of the risks that once went with that.
Secondly, where does this then leave fidelity? Will a faithful person simply be someone who hasn't (yet) decided to be unfaithful? Will monogamy soon be like a dial-up internet connection - perfectly normal a few years ago, but now somewhat eccentric and irritating to the liberated?
Finally, this is interesting new territory for economisation and marketisation, and differs significantly from internet dating. Gary Becker has written about internet dating as increasing the efficiency of the 'marriage market'. This may sound a little tasteless, but it is nevertheless the case that when single people don't wish to be single, they are in a situation of searching for, choosing and competing for sexual partners. It's nicer not to compare this to a market, but in an era when people opt to express themselves in the language of "what I'm looking for", it is not inappropriate for Becker to analyse this using neo-classical economics.
By contrast, I've always been curious to know how rational choice economics, from Ronald Coase through Becker and Robert Putnam, right up to Freakonomics, can be so relaxed with institutions that constrain consumer choices for long periods of time. Coase's theory of the firm uses a rational model of individual psychology to explain why managers have a sustained right to order employees around. Becker uses the same techniques to explain why people become drug addicts. Putnam offers a rationalist defence of committing ones existence to a religious community. How, I've often wondered, can these purveyors of neo-classical theories of consumer choice be quite so relaxed with so many non-market, illiberal institutions?
Marriage, typically, would be another example of an institution which one chooses to enter, in full knowledge that this reduces future choices considerably. This, one would have thought, would represent a challenge to the methodology of neo-classical price theory. It certainly requires a certain amount of intellectual gymnastics by those such as Becker, who then have to claim that individuals may not consciously get married for rational, self-interested reasons, but are nevertheless 'sub-consciously' acting in a utility maximising way due to the various benefits attached to being married.
Perhaps we're about to witness this whole paradox unravelling. Just as pre-nups offer insurance against a relationship falling apart, the technical administration of infidelity generates a market through which to reappropriate one's consumer autonomy from the bonds of marriage. The myth that a rational, self-interested actor could ever commit to anything, beyond the pre-conditions of unconstrained choice, becomes obvious. To be committed to someone will only mean to prefer their company over that of a rationally selected stranger, night after night... or at least for the time being.
So, lets push this further. If no relationships are permanent or binding beyond the desire that initially created them, presumably I can pull out of my crappy mobile phone contract. Lets have an online agency that enables employees to moonlight. And maybe, most of all, individuals and nations can cancel their debt, once they retrospectively decide that they didn't want it in the first place. The creative destruction of human bonds has a long way to go yet.