All you need is a politics of love

After the US Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, campaigners chanted “love has won” and “#lovewins” was a Twitter trend. What would a broader politics of love look like?

Max Harris Philip McKibbin
1 July 2015
 Demotix/Matt Irving.

Love balloon at the Reclaim Love street party in London's Piccadilly Circus. Credit: Demotix/Matt Irving.

Progressive-minded people are struggling to articulate an end-goal for politics. The Right, in most places, remains committed to neoliberalism (and its ideals of private property, liberty, and efficiency). The Left, meanwhile, has failed to respond convincingly.

There are some who still have faith in a Marxist vision of the collapse of capitalism; others hold onto religious prophecies. But for the rest of us, the direction our political journey should take has become unclear. We do not know where we are going. At the same time, there is a growing disdain of politics generally, especially amongst young people. Politicians don’t look like us, they don’t behave like we do, and their ideas don’t connect to our needs.

There is deep doubt, in other words, about whether politics is the right vehicle for collective struggle – even if we could settle on the destination of our journey.

A values-based politics 

So what is to be done, especially in countries like the United Kingdom where these trends are most pronounced? We think the answer lies in articulating a values-based politics, specifically, the values of everyday life. Some of these values, like kindness, have been wrongfully relegated to the private domain. Perhaps it is thought that these values are too virtuous to be respected consistently and in public by our politicians. 

Whatever the case, we believe these are values that we can rally around. We want to put forward a politics of love, in the spirit of finding a politics grounded in everyday values. Love itself might be understood as a value, but we think it can also be understood as a way of determining what is valuable. We view it as underlying other everyday values.

What love means 

We are not the first people to suggest that love could inform politics. 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…” Jimmy Carter, the spiritually-minded and ethically-grounded US President, talked of the need for a “government filled with love”. And Vaclav Havel, the musician and playwright who led the fight to free Czechoslovakia from Soviet rule in 1989, said that a government must “radiate love”. This is not an exhaustive list of references to love in politics, either. Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on the idea in his speeches, Hannah Arendt has used a related concept, and many others (including marriage equality campaigners) have invoked love in similar ways.

What did these thinkers, writers, activists, and politicians mean by ‘love’, and how might we understand the concept? bell hooks chooses to understand love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. Love, for us, is a sentiment of enduring warmth towards a person or people, which shows a deep concern for them. It is closely connected to kindness, generosity, and commitment. The concept of aroha (from the indigenous Māori culture in Aotearoa New Zealand), which is best understood in its cultural context, enriches our understanding of love by articulating something a little wider, a little deeper. In his book Tikanga Whakaaro, Cleve Barlow writes that aroha is a creative force which emanates from the gods. 

He aha te aroha? Ko te aroha he tikanga whakaaro nui; ka aroha tētahi tangata ki tētahi tangata, ki tōna iwi, whenua hoki, ki ngā kīrehe, ki ngā manu, ki ngā ika, ki ngā mea katoa e tupu ake ana i te whenua. Ka aroha te tangata ki tētahi atu, ahakoa he aha tōna āhua i roto i ōna pikitanga ake, i roto anō i ōna heketanga iho, i roto i ōna hari, i roto i ōna pōuri, i roto i āna mahi pai me āna mahi hē.

What is aroha? Aroha in a person is an all-encompassing quality of goodness, expressed by love for people, land, birds and animals, fish, and all living things. A person who has aroha for another expresses genuine concern towards them and acts with their welfare in mind, no matter what their state of health or wealth.

Barlow emphasises the actively inclusive quality of love.

Ko te tangata e mea ana he aroha tōna, ka taea e ia te kite, te atawhai te iwi whānui ahakoa iti, ahakoa rahi. 

A person who claims to possess the gift of aroha demonstrates this love by sharing it with all people and without discrimination.

Politics – and policies – of love

If these understandings tell us something about what love is, what might a politics of love look like? We think love encourages us all to care about politics. If love involves a concern for people, then a politics of love will move this world to a better place for everyone. We can attempt to make our world a better place in lots of ways, by building character, for example, or by improving our relationships. But when we reflect on the many ways in which politics affects our well-being, it becomes clear that to love – to express a sentiment of enduring warmth towards a person or people – is, in part, to care about politics. 

This point can be brought out negatively: if we fail to resist racism or sexism, we cannot be said to be loving, we cannot be said to care about people. If we are committed to changing the structure of our society, politics must be part of the project. If politics is going to do the work of love, it will be because we as individuals care enough to ensure that it does. 

In such a politics, love would be woven through all of our policy. Embracing a politics of love would change how we justify policy, as well as how we talk about it. For example, welfare and benefits might be understood not in terms of encouraging re-entry into the work force (an economic justification), but rather as an expression of commitment towards certain individuals and groups in society that require support. A politics of love would rule out ‘beneficiary-bashing’ language, which does not, and cannot, evince love for those who receive benefits. As another example, refugee policy might be re-conceived as a way of showing warmth to persecuted individuals, in the same way that hospitality can be seen as an expression of love for outsiders.

The importance of people and collectives

Love requires that we recognise the importance of all people, and a politics of love would encourage us to ensure that this recognition informs every political decision that we make – in deciding whether to vote, and who to vote for; in running for office, or deciding whether to support those who are; in helping to make policy, or deciding how to respond to it…

We should also be aware that a lot of actions that do not seem political have a political dimension. Engaging in politics is a broader enterprise than we might think: who we are friends with, how we talk to others, how we operate in the so-called ‘private domain’ of the home – all of this is political, as feminists have long maintained. A politics of love is an ethical framework as well as a political approach.

Collectivity is also integral to a politics of love. A love ethic, in bell hooks’ terms, brings people together – and reminds us of the value of relationships and collective endeavour. Again, Māori culture in Aotearoa New Zealand (like that of many other indigenous cultures) can give us special insight into collectivity and how it might be understood: with its emphasis on collective well-being, it encourages us all to adopt a progressive understanding of politics, focused on enhancing the well-being of us all. We, collectively, are responsible for the world we share, and a focus on the strengths of collectives might help us make political decisions that better balance the needs of individuals, and that respond appropriately to the natural world on which we are so dependent. 

Arguments against the politics of love

It is likely that disagreements will arise as to how such an abstract term like ‘love’ is to be interpreted for, and applied to, politics. But the importance of love is something we should all be able to agree on. Are we advocating a politics of unconditional love, a politics where love can never be withdrawn? To this question, our answer is an unwavering ‘yes’. 

We believe the state owes love to all of its citizens by virtue of our being people, and by virtue of the relationship between the state and its people. The state may express love in stronger or weaker ways, but love itself must never be abandoned, and we should not be drawn into debates about whether love might be withheld, or withdrawn, from some individuals (such as prisoners). Others may say, as a further objection, that love is too soft – too airy-fairy, too waffly – for the hard discussions that need to be had in politics. We reject this claim, too. It is true that politics is not easy, and that (re-)introducing love into the political arena will not resolve all disputes. But it is precisely because politics is messy and difficult that we need motivating ideals – like love – that can keep us focused on what matters in divisive debates.

There are numerous values that we encounter in everyday life that could also be translated into politics. These include (but aren't limited to) compassion, responsibility, forgiveness, and honesty. These can be understood in relation to, and interpreted through, love. 

The politics of love that we have sketched demonstrates that everyday values can provide a wellspring of resources for a new vision of politics. This is a view of politics that is more grounded, and at the same more imaginative, than other narratives circulating today. We are suggesting that the direction our politics should take need not be based on some theory produced through detached reflection, or taken from some distant political movement. Maybe we have been living with it all along.

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