Commodified Relationships And Friendship

When relationships are commodified, can friendship survive? This old, plaintive question has not lost any of its urgency. Once we meet and greet our fellow humans our interactions are quickly  transformed into the transactional because that is the context within which they function. To be with our friends, to spend time with them, to engage in all manner of social interactions often requires money. We spend money on our friends, they spend money on us; perhaps we consume each others’ purchased goods; together, we consume this society’s various offerings–art, culture, sports, entertainment–all needing to be purchased for. Every ‘hang-out session’ needs to be paid for–because, let’s face it, we don’t just go on aimless walks with friends. (The walk in the park with a friend is, I think, a rare indulgence these days.) We cannot afford to be friends with some people; their tastes are too expensive. Some people cannot afford to be friends with us; our tastes are too expensive. (In  my graduate school years, there were friends whose dinner invitations I always turned down; they would pick restaurants which I could not afford. And indeed, their failure to recognize my financial situation, by way of their oblivious invitations, never failed to anger me for their insensitivity.)

So accusations of failures of generosity are, in a society like ours, underwritten by a particular urgency; the pinch of the tightening belt all too often animates the anger with which we lash out at those who would abuse our beneficence. A friend who lightens your wallet excessively or who does not lighten his in turn for you is no friend. For we are keenly aware that this relationship seems to have impoverished us in this society’s most crucial reckoning of our worth: our bank balance. We struggle to find the right balance between being a miser and a spendthrift in our relationships with our friends; they struggle accordingly. Indeed, those supposed purveyors of unconditional love, parents, often find themselves hurling accusations of ingratitude at their children: “Do you have any fucking idea how much money I spent on your goddamned college education?” (One friend confided to me that he couldn’t wait for his kids to move out of his house so that he could start spending his money on himself. He groaned as he said this, because he knew, like I did, that matters were not so simple, that his children could, and would, continue to make both emotional and financial demands on him.)

The need to balance the budget makes accountants out of all of us, even when interacting with loved ones. It casts a very particular interpretive lens over actions and words, causing us to evaluate and judge accordingly. That forgetful friend of yours, the one who forgets to reciprocate the coffee you bought for him, the one who forgot to offer to pay for the gas when you gave him a ride? He doesn’t appear innocently absent-minded anymore. All too easily, he’s easily transformed into a malevolent destroyer of your financial future. (I exaggerate but you catch my drift.)

The converse aspect of the situation described above is that relationships that start off as transactional have little chance of blossoming into friendships. On that more, anon.



4 thoughts on “Commodified Relationships And Friendship

  1. I forget who it was in the 50s I believe. A black scholar who anticipated the race issue with the theory that it is class which is the root of inequality. Not race. That class is really the issue. For what else are you talking about if it isn’t reciprocity in money, and I believe that integrity is equivalent to moneymaking ability?

  2. My brother used to say that there is a cloud above the relationship between persons of uneven financial statuses. The less fortunate is always looking for a right moment to ask for a ‘loan’ and the more fortunateis always thinking about if the other person asks for a loan how to turn it down.

  3. Although I’m usually a snark-slinging troll, I will offer this: Get into a reasonable activity with kids if they are interested. there are leagues in Brooklyn, including the non-profit that I worked in for years, where a season is <$150. For those that cannot afford it, there are hardship cases, where we help. I've gotten to know so many people as good quality friends and parents, who, if I am honest with myself, I would have disliked and disrespected if I just saw their political beliefs splashing across social media. This is why I strongly believe in making friends through giving in some way, even if to your own children. Healthy and diverse relationships that cost very little. 3-5 hours a week for 3 months for that price, or less if you can't afford it. That's not so terrible. I'm not much of a giver, but this was a gift to me and enriched me and my relationships.

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