Love is the ultimate value, and love is under threat. That is the rumor we good, secular citizens are hearing, at a time when capitalism’s fatal drag on human affections has become harder than ever to ignore. Love is being lost to modern promiscuity, to social alienation, to the degraded hours of work and separation that spread, like static, between the members of your average American family. If only there was a way to save love—and them! Well, respond the reactionaries: the way to rediscover true feeling and value lies in tradition—in, more specifically, tradlife.
“Tradlife” is the handy neologism for a recent set of attitudes and lifestyles devoted to glorifying the nuclear family and its jolly scenery; it is often promulgated by the new right, though followers retain a confusing span of affiliations. Even as tradlife looks backward, its pursuit and its rites are communicated mostly over social media in role-playing and image-making, the principal languages of such platforms. Followers post photos and videos of their ostensibly traditional families, wreathing their content with artful connotations of romance, safety, and leisure. Wives narrate to cameras the good fortune they’ve found in being kept women and living alongside stoic breadwinners; they publish pictures of their houses and vacations, which are visibly expensive.
The twist that makes tradlife a phenomenon of our times is that it also includes earnest criticisms of life under capitalism. Many tradlifers are young women who hate work and celebrate arrangements where men rescue their wives from the professional realm: “When my friend’s mom first started dating her husband,” one viral tweet reads, “he said ‘Stay with me, marry me, and you’ll never have to work again.’” Only tradition can salvage love from modern indignities and the early-morning commute. Like a trapdoor, the idea swings open to reveal a baby-pink fantasy too fragile and nostalgic to be taken in the open air. Regular people preoccupied with bills, healthcare premiums, and rising rents will find much of the tradlife lifestyle to be out of reach. That paradox is what makes it such potent social media fare: tradlife is, at bottom, perpetuated by “influencers” who know how to make others feel desirous and frustrated in equal measure. It is a menacing advertisement jingle, for a product people may not want or be certain exists.
By describing the misery of work, tradlife ennobles itself. But as an ethos it also maintains a willful stupidity about modern capitalism’s historic dependence on the family, a constitutive structure of capitalism, through which property, debt, and economic interest are all consolidated (it was Milton Friedman, after all, who...
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