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The Politics Of Love: Where To From Here?

There has been a resurgence of interest in love and politics. We now regularly hear the word ‘love’ in activism and political analysis. In the lead-up to the 2016 US Presidential election, for example, a Love-Driven Politics Collective was formed; and following the election of Donald Trump, Van Jones mobilised a #LoveArmy.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared on Twitter, ‘I practice a politics of love for all people’; and most recently, Bishop Michael Curry explored the concept in his wedding sermon on the power of love.

The idea that love might inform politics is not new. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously invoked the power of love in his anti-racist activism. In his sermon ‘On Being a Good Neighbor’, which is collected in his book Strength to Love, he tells us that our love ethic must incorporate ‘universal altruism’ if we are to avoid what he calls ‘the barbaric consequences of any tribal-centered, national-centered, or racial-centered ethic.’

And some powerful contemporary thinkers have embraced the concept. In her book All About Love, bell hooks writes, ‘All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic. […] Were a love ethic informing all public policy in cities and towns, individuals would come together and map out programmes that would affect the good of everyone…’

Feminists have explored related concepts in developing the ethics of care; and some philosophers and psychologists discuss ‘affect’, or the ways in which emotions are experienced, and its implications for politics.

But the term ‘love’ is still very fragile. We have not yet done the necessary work to prepare it for the harsh world of politics. I first started writing about the Politics of Love with my good friend Max Harris in 2015. Since then, references to love in politics have increased remarkably. But love has still not established a place for itself in politics, and it is far from realising its full potential – as, that is, the foundation upon which our entire politics is built. I believe that the Politics of Love has this potential.

What is the Politics of Love? It is a values-based politics, which affirms the importance of people, and extends beyond us to non-human animals and the environment. It places love at the centre, and mobilises loving values, such as understanding, respect, and trust. It guides our political decisions; it also challenges us to re-think what counts as a ‘political decision’, and how we communicate with each other about important issues. The Politics of Love has precedents in the everyday acts of love we show to one another, as well as in feminist, civil rights, and LGBTQI movement. Its strength lies not only in love’s power, but in the fact that almost all of us intuitively recognise its importance. ‘Love’ is a word that we all understand, and which brings us together.

Love has still not established a place for itself in politics, and it is far from realising its full potential – as, that is, the foundation upon which our entire politics is built.

But it is equally true that we have many different ideas about what love is, and that some of these conflict with each other. These competing accounts of love risk undermining the concept’s capacity to positively inform politics. Just think about the different notions of love that attach to our ideas about family, romantic relationships, and God – and the potential that some of these concepts have to divide us! Love, in the political sense, is not, and cannot be, all that the word is currently used to mean; if it was, we would lose it in contradictions. We must engage critically with all of the impressions of love that we receive, and work toward an account of love that is actively inclusive, and that fulfils everyone’s needs.

Max and I have explored different conceptions of love. He continues to favour the idea that love is ‘a deep warmth that we direct towards other things’, while I worry that the focus on ‘other things’ (including people) does not adequately accommodate self-love, and that the word ‘warmth’ does not capture the full range of expressions that love manifests. I have explored definitions such as, ‘love is for love, and, being love, is for people’, and, ‘to love is to want to be loving, to work at loving’, which are, seemingly, circular, but which still, I believe, tell us something about what love is. It has also been helpful to think of love as ‘a combination of care, concern, and commitment’ – although I worry that this represents an attempt to reduce the irreducible. I currently favour the idea that love is an orientation or ‘attitude’: that it is about how we engage in the world.

Love is about how we relate: to ourselves, to each other, and to the world beyond us. It can be helpful to think of love as a value, but it is more than that: it determines and balances other values, like humility and responsibility. It guides us as we live our lives, and helps us decide how to act.

Many people are interested in the ‘real-world implications’ of the Politics of Love. Max and I have attempted to articulate some of these in a number of places. In our original article, for example, we suggested that the Politics of Love could lead to a renewed focus on rehabilitation in prisons worldwide, as an expression of the principle that warmth should be shown to all individuals, even those who have made mistakes, and of our understanding that individuals are never wholly responsible for their situations.

In his chapter on love and work in his book, The New Zealand Project, Max proposes a universal basic income, a benefit paid to every member of a community regardless of their status of employment. Contrasting this with an insecure work benefit, the main aim of which is to get people into employment, he writes:

“A universal basic income best gives effect to a politics of love. It expresses confidence in people’s ability to determine their own life courses, rather than demeaning or belittling them.”

This, he argues, is equivalent to showing love to people. He says that a universal basic income could also enable people to leave abusive relationships by creating financial independence, allowing them to ‘realise love more fully’ in their own lives.

And in my article, ‘It is time to imagine our entire politics in loving terms’, I argue that teaching indigenous languages like te reo Māori in settler-colonial socieites like our native Aotearoa New Zealand, could promote kotahitanga (togetherness) and māramatanga (understanding), and that it might also support efforts at decolonisation. These are just examples of the proposals we have already made.

But what is more important, in my view, is how the Politics of Love operates, and what we can do to ensure that love, with all of its promise and potential, is enabled to inform politics. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. (Let me state for the record that I know that I don’t!) As I’ve said before, the Politics of Love isn’t a theory of, or belonging to, just one person, or even to two people; it actively seeks to involve all of us. I do have some suggestions, though, as to how we might realise love’s radical political potential…

First, I think the Politics of Love needs to delimit itself. The competing definitions of love (and, to an extent, differing views about what it means for politics) threaten to undermine its power to motivate positive change. I think it’s important that the Politics of Love promotes honest discussion and debate, but this doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’. I conceive of the Politics of Love as a space within which people come together in good faith, with all of our diverse knowledges and histories, to do the serious work of making the world a better place for everyone who shares it. I think of it as a round space, with love at its centre, and within which radical equality is the rule. We should nurture respectful exchange between diverse voices within this space. Importantly, it must include spokespeople for non-human animals and the natural environment – for, that is, those who are, and that which is, incapable of full self-representation. I follow bell hooks, who writes, in Feminism is for Everybody, that ‘there can be no love when there is domination’, and so, I understand the Politics of Love as anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-speciesist, and opposed to all forms of domination; indeed, I understand this intersectional commitment as constituting the outer limits of this space.

The Politics of Love isn’t a theory of, or belonging to, just one person, or even to two people; it actively seeks to involve all of us.

Second, I think the Politics of Love needs to nurture unity within this space. It must invite all of those who are working for a better world into it; and we should strive, collaboratively, to ensure their continued inclusion within it. It is vitally important that we think through how this unity can be maintained – because it is on this that the strength of the Politics of Love depends. One way that we can do this is by centralising love, and ensuring that we continue to refer back to it when thinking and talking about politics. One point on which Max and I have disagreed is his description, or elaboration, of the Politics of Love as ‘a politics of other people’. While I agree that love asks us to look beyond ourselves, and that we should think about the implications our decisions have for others, I worry that equating the Politics of Love with ‘other people’ diminishes the importance of self-love, and precludes love for non-human animals and the natural environment. By continually returning to ‘love’ and not getting diverted by lesser terms, we will ensure that the Politics of Love sustains its unifying potential. There is strength in unity: if we are going to realise a loving world, it will be by working together.

Third, I think the Politics of Love needs to cultivate a strong intellectual foundation. The biggest challenge that we face now consists in confronting the idea that love is too soft – too ‘waffly’, too ‘airy-fairy’ – for politics. Although the Politics of Love must remain accessible to all, and although it will be engaged with primarily outside of the academy, some of the intellectual ‘grunt work’ will, necessarily, be done within universities. Indeed, this work has already begun. Much of the work that has been, and is being, done on the ethics of care and ‘affect’, to return to those examples, could positively inform the Politics of Love. It does seem to me, however, that most of those working in these, and related, areas are engaging all-too-tentatively with the notion of love. I suspect that they may be avoiding the word ‘love’ – consciously or otherwise – for fear of being ridiculed. (I worry, too, that by avoiding the term, they are often diverging from that which love suggests.) But if love is to achieve its potential, we must embrace the word itself – especially if the concept really is irreducible. Those in academia who are working within these spaces could unite around the Politics of Love. If they did, we would have a greater hope of achieving the world we are all trying to create.

As many of us are coming to appreciate, the Politics of Love has the potential to realise a better world. What it desperately needs now is for people to care. This is, really, the first requirement of the Politics of Love: that we care. As Rollo May states so clearly in his book Love & Will, ‘Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is.’ We must now shake off our collective indifference, and engage in the difficult work that love requires of us.

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