Love: The Radical Ideal

The idea that politics should be more loving is steadily gaining support. Over the last few years especially, the language of love has been used to call for change. It has, for example, been invoked in the debates around marriage equality (‘Love wins!’), and in response to the ascension of Donald Trump, a president whose politics are widely viewed as unloving (‘Love trumps hate!’).

This should give us hope: love is all we need.

There are two risks associated with this rise in the language of love, though. The first is that unless we articulate what love is, our use of the word will be ineffectual. We must be able to say what ‘love’ means for politics — which also involves saying what it is not. (I have addressed this problem elsewhere, most recently in my article ‘The Politics of Love: Where to From Here?’) The second, related, risk is that unless we affirm its radicality, ‘love’ will be perceived as just another idea, one that sounds nice enough, but that doesn’t ask anything much of us, and that won’t actually guide us in change. Our challenge is to ensure that the Politics of Love realises its radical potential. It is love’s ability to bring about transformational change that makes it such an immensely powerful idea. For this reason, the Politics of Love, which centres love, must also be radical.

The idea that ‘love’ is, or that it can be, a radical political concept is controversial. Some queer theorists, for example, point out that the rhetoric of love has been used to reinscribe heteronormative conceptions of self and ways of relating, which works against real change; and the slogan ‘Love trumps hate!’ is heard by many as articulating only what ‘we’ are against, without offering a substantive account of what love looks like, or what makes it superior to ‘Trumpism’. Perhaps the clearest articulation of the idea that love is not a radical concept — at least, not as ‘love’ is popularly understood — can be found in Black radicalism, with its critiques of civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s politics.

Dr. King is one of a few political figures whose activism closely resembles the Politics of Love as I imagine it. He used the language of love in his anti-racist activism, and in doing so, helped the American people move closer toward justice. In his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, for example, he discusses non-violence, writing, ‘Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.’ He explains that by ‘love’ he doesn’t mean ‘sentimental or affective emotion’, but instead, ‘understanding, redemptive goodwill.’ King’s conception of loving politics continues to inform our popular understanding of it. In his collection The Radical King, Cornel West defends the view that his politics were radical, arguing that his ‘revolutionary witness’ was ‘embodied in anti-imperial, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and democratic-socialist sentiments’, and ‘grounded in his courage to think, his courage to love, and his courage to die.’

However, Kehinde Andrews contrasts King’s approach, and that of civil rights movement generally, with Black radicalism. Civil rights movement argues that we can fix ‘the system’ and make it more loving, he says, whereas Black radicalism holds that the system does not love black people, it hates black people, and it is built on their oppression. The system cannot be fixed, he argues; instead, there must be revolution. In his book Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, he contrasts King’s conception of universal love with the love that underpins Black radicalism:

In complete opposition to King’s approach, Malcolm [X] declared ‘you don’t have a revolution in which you love your enemy’. In complete contrast to King’s politics, Malcolm was clear that ‘you don’t have a revolution in which you are begging the system of exploitation to integrate you into it’. King’s unconditional love was that of the supplicant House Negro who ‘loved their master more than they loved themselves’; who was desperate to remain on the plantation. For Black radicalism, embracing the oppressor is the antithesis of revolutionary love. Instead it is essential to ground the politics on an ‘undying love for the people’.

He has said that, really, it is Black radicalism which constitutes ‘a politics of love’.

On Andrews’ interpretation, King’s politics was not radical, but rather was complicit in upholding the colonising structure to which the oppression of African Americans was integral — because instead of insisting on revolution, it advocated reform. To understand Andrew’s claim, it is helpful to reflect on the language King used in his renowned ‘I Have a Dream’ speech:

In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.

Rather than asserting new, or alternative, American values, King affirmed his country’s founding statements, working to get the constitution to do more than it had done previously.

The Politics of Love does not reject Dr. King’s legacy. His affirmation of political love and the progress he made in his quest for justice stand as enduring examples for loving politics. I believe King was mistaken in tying his vision of loving politics to the United States of America and to the American constitution — as he did when he said that his dream was ‘a dream deeply rooted in the American dream’. (Indeed, his own words help us to see this: in his sermon ‘On Being a Good Neighbor’, which is collected in the book Strength to Love, he denounces ‘the barbaric consequences of any tribal-centered, national-centered, or racial-centered ethic’.) King was, however, right to insist on non-violence and to struggle for clearly-articulated, attainable goals. The Politics of Love urges us to follow his example.

The idea that radicalism and revolution — in the sense of sudden, dramatic change — are inseparable concepts is false. It is possible to bring about radical change without engaging in revolution. The suggestion that the Politics of Love should spur us to revolution is misguided. A revolution motivated by love would require capacities — such as unity of will, readiness to mobilise toward common goals, and leadership for passive resistance — that our societies have not yet cultivated. As significantly, revolution, as it is popularly understood, is at odds with commitments that underpin loving politics, such as non-violence, meaningful collaboration, and critical reflexivity.

In his book The Rebel, Albert Camus — writing in the middle of the 20th century — affirms the ‘insane generosity of rebellion, which unhesitatingly gives the strength of its love and refuses injustice without a moment’s delay’; but in doing so, he warns against revolution:

Revolution without honour, calculated revolution which, in preferring an abstract concept of man to a man of flesh and blood, denies existence as many times as is necessary, puts resentment in the place of love. Immediately rebellion, forgetful of its generous origins, allows itself to be contaminated by resentment, it denies life, dashes toward destruction, and raises up the cohorts of petty rebels… It is no longer either revolution or rebellion but rancour, malice, tyranny.

Political revolution, Camus teaches us, almost always betrays its noble origins.

Friedrich Nietzsche makes a related point in his book The Gay Science, when he admonishes, ‘Only as creators can we destroy!’ (‘– But let us also not forget that in the long run it is enough to create new names and valuations and appearances of truth in order to create new things,’ he adds.) If we really were going to overthrow the current system, we would need a developed account of what we were going to replace it with in order for the revolutionary project to succeed: we would have to work out the details beforehand. But such an approach would be inconsistent with the Politics of Love, because love requires that we work out what it entails step-by-step — to ensure that the changes we make really are beneficial, and so that we can minimise any unintended harms — and that we determine this by working together.

Instead of revolution, the Politics of Love advocates sustained progress toward a radical ideal — which is love. Love is not an empty notion; nor is it overly prescriptive. Rather, it is a motivating idea, towards which we can make progress. The Politics of Love can be thought of as a framework for political decision-making — as a ‘space’, within which deliberation takes place and decisions are made, and from which we act, as individuals and as collectives. This politics sources its motivation in love — rather than history, culture, constitutions, or relationships (all of which inform it, but to none of which it is tied). Importantly, the conception of love underpinning it is universal. This means, for example, that it is committed to the eventual opening of national borders. (Echoes of this universalism, which often translates itself into internationalism, can be heard in Andrews’ claim that, ‘Racism is a global system and therefore any politics that offers a national solution can never be radical, because it will never overturn the existing system’; and in his argument, addressing the notion of a separate nation for African Americans, that, ‘Separation for African Americans, depending on the support of the American government, is not at its heart a radical project. It is one that seeks refuge for part of the Diaspora at the ultimate expense of the rest.’)

What is it, exactly, that makes the Politics of Love radical? Essentially, it is its commitment to realising a new basis for our relationships. What this will look like is something that we will determine together, as we create it. We can, however, say this: it will involve changes not only to how we interact as individuals, but to how collectives operate, and to all of the institutions that uphold our societies. The realisation of this ‘beloved community’ will support all of us — without exception — to stand in loving relation: to ourselves, to each other, to non-human animals, and to the natural environment.

Importantly, this commitment requires that we work to address, and ultimately overcome, oppression in all its forms. Indeed, this might be thought of as a ‘prerequisite’ for loving relations. As Aph and Syl Ko write in their book Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, domination works against love:

Sure, we should all have love for one another, but part of the reason why we don’t isn’t because individual people are just mean and hateful. It’s because we have violent systems of oppression that folks of colour don’t control.

They go on to say, ‘Real love is when privileged folks stop assuming world peace will happen in a white supremacist, patriarchal society that strategically disenfranchises certain bodies.’

The Politics of Love is committed to overcoming all forms of oppression, and to realising truly loving communities. This involves recognising the ways in which the various forms of oppression are interconnected. In her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks writes that in order to bring about radical change, liberation struggles must support each other:

Significantly, struggle to end sexist oppression that focuses on destroying the cultural basis for such domination strengthens other liberation struggles. Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without supporting struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression. While they may initiate successful reforms, their efforts will not lead to revolutionary change. Their ambivalent relationship to oppression in general is a contradiction that must be resolved, or they will daily undermine their own radical work.

Importantly, overcoming oppression also involves extending, responsively, our understanding of what constitutes oppression. Unfortunately, hooks — who is so righteously vocal on the importance of realising freedom for all of us as people — is silent on the relationship between struggles for human liberation and animal liberation. To succeed, our approach must be fully intersectional.

In her introduction to the book Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, A. Breeze Harper, following Marjorie Spiegel and other thinkers, writes of ‘the interconnectedness of institutionalized racism, nationalism, and sexism; the mistreatment of nonhuman animals; and the abuse of the planet’s natural resources.’ In that collection, the contributors extend her discussion — and in doing so, extend our concern for each other to non-human animals. Similarly, the contributors to another important collection, Veganism in an Oppressive World: A Vegans of Color Community Project, explore the intersection of our responsibilities not only to non-human animals, but to each other, by, for example, critiquing those expressions of veganism that — however responsive they may be to the oppression of non-human animals — ignore the lived realities of marginalised peoples. As the collection’s editor, Julia Feliz Brueck, writes:

A strawberry may be meat- and dairy-free, but depending on where it came from it may not actually be vegan in the fullest sense of the word (causing the least amount of harm; created in a manner that is just).

The Politics of Love is, then, committed to fundamental change; and this is, essentially, what makes the project radical. Integral to this is who this politics involves. The Politics of Love is actively inclusive, and it strives to involve all of us. It values, and is dependent on, diversity: the project of realising loving relations between and beyond people will remain incomplete if it is not informed by a truly diverse range of perspectives. It also involves a commitment to doing — and continuing to do — the difficult work of love — which is to say, it requires us to act. This work must be shared.

It is vitally important that The Politics of Love maintains its radical focus. If we do not diligently remind each other what we are struggling for, we will only succeed in effecting superficial changes. One way we can ensure it maintains its radical focus is by centring love — by continuing to talk about it, and by asking what it requires of us. ‘Love’ carries within it the idea of a loving world; against it we can see all of the work that still needs to be done. We must be ambitious. It is also very important that we reflect critically on all uses of the language of love in politics — lest it be co-opted by those who would divide us rather than unite us, to benefit some at the expense of others; or to further entrench the status quo and the numerous oppressions that uphold it.

If we do realise this radical vision, the Politics of Love will re-write our world. It will supersede all of our many cultures — but in the new communities that we create, we will read what is best in the societies that we already know.