50 Shades of Libertarian Love

By Walter Benn MichaelsMay 22, 2015

50 Shades of Libertarian Love

This essay is excerpted from a longer piece forthcoming in Neoliberalism and Literature (2016), ed. Mitchum Huehls and Rachel Greenwald Smith.


IF YOU GO ON PornHub, you’ll find a lot of different kinds of porn, some pretty obvious (“blowjob,” “gangbang”), some not so obvious (“feet,” “tickling”), and at least one or two (“smoking while pissing”) the attraction of which is not obvious at all (no offense, smokers and pissers). What you won’t find, despite the fact that in book form it has sold over 100 million copies and as a film has made more than $500 million, is contract porn. But now, with its release on DVD, Fifty Shades of Grey — maybe the only movie ever made that’s understood the appeal of a woman looking at a man across 12 inches of hard-wood conference table and murmuring “no anal fisting” — puts contract in the light it deserves (glowing, above the Apple logo). It’s not so much that with Fifty Shades, porn has gone mainstream; it’s that with Fifty Shades the mainstream has been revealed as porn.

Of course, it’s not as if masochists didn’t always sort of know that. After all, the founding text of sadomasochism, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, revolves not exactly around its hero’s desire to be a “slave” but instead around his desire to be a slave by “contract.” Like the one in which he agrees to become the “property” of his “cruel mistress” while she, “in exchange,” agrees to “appear as often as possible in fur, especially when she’s being cruel to her slave.” And like the several contracts Sacher-Masoch himself actually entered into with his mistresses. The slave by contract has made a choice, and the importance of choosing links masochism not only to compulsion but to consent, identifying freedom with the right to sell not only one’s labor but also, if one wishes, one’s person and insisting on both the benefits and the pleasure associated with the exercise of that right. Or, as Marcela Iacub puts it, “It’s my body,” and I can do with it “what I want.”

Unlike 50 Shades’s Ana, however, Iacub is not a fictional English major; she’s an Argentinian-born French intellectual. And her cruel master is not the tall, young, and attractive CEO of Grey Enterprise Holdings Inc.; it’s the “short,” “old,” and “ugly” CEO of DSK Global Investment Fund — Dominique Strauss Kahn, the former Managing Director of the IMF who ended up paying a Sofitel housekeeper what was rumored to be $6 million in order to make her accusation that he’d raped her in his hotel room go away. DSK always claimed that the sex had in fact been consensual and, whether or not anyone else believed him, Iacub apparently did. The aspect of DSK’s character that interested (attracted and/or repelled) her, Iacub says in Belle et Bête, the memoir she wrote of the affair she had with him, is what she calls the “pig,” and the essence of the pig is his love of freedom: “le propre du porc est la liberté.” He needs to do whatever he wants and he needs the person he does it to to want it too; he needs to be “sur que son partenaire consent.” And even when the pig ends up biting off part of her ear and eating it, Iacub can’t quite give up the idea that the exercise of freedom has been hers as well as his: “c’était mon corps et … je pouvais me faire dévorer si je voulais.”

Indeed the value of free market exchange is central to Belle et Bête. Earlier in the book, before the affair has begun, she turns down an offer from DSK’s then wife, Ann Sinclair, to work with her “for free” (“gratuitement à son journal”) because, she says, it seems to her wrong to “travailler” “sans être payé”; she is, “par principe contre le travail gratuit.” And the loss of her ear only confirms the principle that people should be paid for what they do and should pay for what they get since, in exchange for the ear, what she gets is “salut,” which is, she says, more than worth it: “Ce n’est rien comme prix, une oreille.” “To pay only an ear in exchange for understanding the true nature of my desires is a bargain.” So just as you don’t write for free, you don’t get to understand your desire to be “abused” for free. Once you do understand it, instead of writing for the French Huffington Post for nothing, you write your memoir for something.

Albeit not as much as you hoped for. The idea of Belle et Bête was more of a publishing sensation than its actual sales were, although not because masochism doesn’t sell. In the months just before and just after Belle et Bête appeared, Cinquante Nuances de Grey was doing almost as well in France as it had in the US and the UK. Indeed, just as submission teaches Iacub about her desires, the opportunity for the “submissive” to learn about hers is described as the “fundamental purpose” of the contract that — laying out the dominant’s right to “flog, spank or whip” the “submissive” and establishing her “consent” to being so spanked and whipped — looms even larger (10 full pages) in Fifty Shades of Grey than it does in Venus in Furs.

Which, given the political role that contract and consent have been called upon to play in the last half century, makes a certain sense. Iacub has a series of what she calls “nightmares” in which she insists that she has the “right” to give herself to DSK and, speaking in terms that any follower of libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises would immediately recognize, she complains that only in a “paternalist” or “tyrannical” society would “the State” insist on its power to “interfere” with the desire of one “consenting adult” to be eaten by another. Of course, von Mises’s objections to “paternal government” more usually involved things like the state’s interfering with the consumption of “cigarettes” and “canned food” not ears. The state, he argued, had no right to compel producers to label the actual contents of their products and thus interfere with the ability of “individual citizens” to buy whatever they wanted.

But the logic is the same. In Human Action, von Mises makes a foundational distinction between “two kinds of social cooperation,” preferring “contract,” where “the logical relation between the cooperating individuals is symmetrical” (“John has the same relation to Tom as Tom has to John”) to “command” or “subordination,” where “there is the man who commands and there are those who obey his orders” and which is thus “asymmetrical.” And, although the relation between a “Dominant” and a “Submissive” would seem like the exemplary instance of asymmetry (one commands, the other obeys), the reconfiguring of that relation as one that the submissive desires and to which she consents renders them symmetrical. Like John and Tom, the submissive and the dominant are both getting what they want. If masochism in Belle et Bête is a kind of libertarian nightmare, in 50 Shades of Grey, it’s not just an American (as Heather Havrilesky rightly calls it) but, more pointedly, an Austrian wet dream.

At least it would be if the contract ever got signed. Or it is, but only because (while endlessly discussed), the contract never does get signed. Since Ana basically does everything Christian wants her to do right from the start and doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to do, it becomes, Christian says, “moot,” and, of course, it always was, as they both know, “unenforceable.” One way to understand this rendering irrelevant of what is structurally at the center of the text’s will-she-or-won’t-she plot is as the expression of a certain ambivalence about understanding their relationship as contractual. After all, from page one, the novel is clearly headed toward marriage and the attempt to avoid marriage being reduced to mere contract is a characteristic component of an older (late 19th and early 20th century) domestic ideology — one that gets a fleeting reprise in Fifty Shades when Christian is outraged by his father’s suggestion that he and Ana sign a prenuptial agreement.

The idea here is that what the two of them have is a freedom even purer than any that can be or needs to be embodied in a contract. But where the older resistance to seeing marriage as contractual involved the sense that contracts were too easy to dissolve (i.e., by divorce), this newer ambivalence involves just the opposite: the sense that contracts are too constraining, or, at least, constraining in the wrong way. For the scene in which Christian angrily repudiates the prenup is immediately followed by his telling her to propose a safe word (she chooses “popsicle”), smacking her bottom, and then (in traditional soft-core fashion) “thrusting” “deep” into her while her wrists and ankles are cuffed to the four corners of their bed. The power of consent here — Ana experiences, as always, “the most intense climax” ever — not only doesn’t require a contract but is, as the reminder about the safe word suggests, made possible by the contract’s irrelevance. For once you have a safe word, you don’t need a contract. As long as Ana doesn’t say popsicle, she is getting exactly what she wants and, the second she does say it, she will also be getting exactly what she wants.

There’s a sense, then, in which the sexual contract they didn’t sign is both superseded and perfected by the sex they go on to have. Indeed, the contract supersedes and perfects itself since it too contains a provision for safe words, while insisting (revealingly because tautologically) that “all that occurs under” its terms “will be consensual,” including the Submissive’s right to withdraw at any time and the Dominant’s “right to dismiss the Submissive from his service at any time and for any reason.” In this refusal to countenance the paradox at the heart of contract (you choose to give up, in certain circumstances and for a certain amount of time, your right to choose) contemporary masochism (maybe we should call it neoliberal masochism) perfects what we might now call liberal masochism by replacing liberal freedom of contract — binding in a way that necessarily limits the will — with a fantasy of continuous consent, of a social bond, as one might put it (and as David Graeber has put it) based “solely on the free consent of [its] participants.”

What Graeber is imagining, of course, is an anarchist’s utopia, one that might be contrasted to the reality in which the right to dismiss someone from your service at any time and for any reason (and, naturally, to quit at any time and for any reason) has assumed new prominence in the US labor market. Of course, at will employment has been the default setting of the American workplace since the end of the 19th century and instead of thinking of it as increasingly dominant, some commentators today worry about (or take satisfaction in) the fact that the state has carved out some exceptions to it. But the exceptions primarily (and predictably) involve only protected categories like race, sex, and age, and the primary bulwark against arbitrary dismissal — membership in a union, hence the protection of a union contract — has, in the neoliberal period, shrunk in tandem with the rise in inequality. The standard estimate is that three quarters of the private sector workforce are at will employees. In this world, as Andrew Hoberek convincingly argues, a contract begins to look (but only for the worker) like “a site of nostalgia,” since the union contract that binds you to a one percent raise and contains a no-strike clause is better than no contract and no raise. From the boss’s perspective, however, the handcuffs that bind Ana only as long as she wants to be bound and the image of her resistance (“Why do you defy me?” Christian asks) as the expression of her desire (“Because I love you,” she replies) are the fantasy that makes the free market seem truly free — what workers really want is to be fucked.

This is what it means that, as Ana says, “Christian’s idea of a relationship is more like a job offer.” And also what it means for the novel to be unconcerned about the contract’s unenforceability. The liberal bug (the state won’t make you do what you promised) is the libertarian/anarchist feature (the state won’t make you do anything at all). More importantly, perhaps, it’s why — despite its unenforceability and despite its redundancy (the safe word really does all the work) — masochism can’t quite let the contract go. For what is standardly described as Fifty Shades’s contribution to the mainstreaming of the S&M lifestyle could more plausibly be described as its participation in what a writer in the Harvard Business Review calls the new “work style” that, as she enthusiastically observes, “more and more people are choosing,” the “contingent work style.” The essence of the contingent work style is that contingent workers are understood not as employees but as “independent contracting parties.” Indeed, the licensing agreement that Uber (perhaps the paradigmatic practitioner of the contingent work style) requires all its drivers to sign explicitly specifies that “no employment contract is created between [the Dominant and the Submissive]”— I mean, “between Uber and the Drivers.” The point of this stipulation for contingent workers is that, as independent contractors, they have “the freedom to be their own boss.” The point for Uber is that because it’s employing bosses not workers, it doesn’t have to pay benefits like social security or workers’ compensation (not to mention the fact that bosses can’t form unions).

In other words, the reason neoliberal masochism won’t just let contract go is because it’s only employment contracts that it really wants to get rid of. After all, by making the neoliberal denial of the difference between employer and employee literal (i.e., by thinking of us all as investing our human capital), real capital saves itself a lot of money. Or, as the lead attorney in the class action suit recently filed against Uber says, “By not classifying its drivers as employees, Uber is shifting the expenses of running a business to its workers.” In Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s not until Christian gives Ana the company she’s been working for as a wedding present that she can fully experience the transcendence of the liberal relation between employer and employee by the neoliberal relationship between independent contractors. (The company is even called “Independent Publishing”!) But Uber drivers can get that same glow just by signing the licensing agreement. And the rest of us can get a version of it every time we rate and are rated by our drivers, hoping for a match as good as Ana’s and Christian’s (and dreading one as bad as Dakota Johnson’s and Jamie Dornan’s).


Walter Benn Michaels has just completed a new book, The Beauty of a Social Problem; Photography, Autonomy and Political Economy.

LARB Contributor

Walter Benn Michaels has just completed a new book, The Beauty of a Social Problem; Photography, Autonomy and Political Economy, forthcoming in Spring 2015 from the University of Chicago Press. He is the author of The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, and The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism.


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