Max Harris
Nov 29, 2016 · 10 min read


In a time of Trump, an age of fear, love could be a revolutionary idea. A politics of love, to be more precise, might just have the power to transform how we do politics and how we relate to each other.

What is love?

Artists, writers, theologians, and people going about their everyday lives have reflected on this for centuries. Susan Sontag once said: “Nothing is mysterious. No human relation. Except love.” And maybe love is beyond definition, a concept that if reduced to constituent parts becomes over-simplified or distorted.

But philosopher Harry Frankfurt, theologian Simone Weil, and writer James Baldwin have offered accounts of love that, I think, come close to capturing the truth of love.

For Frankfurt, love has five elements: “a disinterested concern for the wellbeing or flourishing” of the object of love, “conscientious attention”, an “ineluctably personal” concern, “an identification with the beloved”, and “constraints upon the will”. This seems to underscore well the fact that love has to be channeled towards an object of love, a beloved. What it lacks is a sense of love’s intensity or visceral depth. Frankfurt’s definition might also mix up what love is and what love requires. Having our will constrained is a consequence of love, but not love itself.

Simone Weil is less cold than Frankfurt, and adds something to his approach to love. Weil says that love is “intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention”. This description offers a fuller vision of love’s richness. It connects love, rightly (I think), to selflessness — “gratuitous, generous attention” requires a departure from self-interest and a willingness to consider others. But Weil’s stringing together of five adjectives to describe love might narrow down excessively what love is. As well, love — in my mind — requires more than mere “attention”. Love requires something active. It is not just about having regard to or taking notice of someone.

James Baldwin has a different perspective, and one that valuably fills gaps in those provided by Frankfurt and Weil. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin describes love as “a state of grace”, “a tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth”. This gets closer to capturing the fact that love should be demanding. And Baldwin suggests — in my view, correctly — that love might be something closer to a mood or disposition, when he calls love a “state of grace”. However, perhaps Baldwin, too, is overly specific. Does love really require a “universal sense of quest and daring and growth”?

I’d suggest that love is a deep sense of warmth directed towards an object, usually another person. I’ve developed this definition with Philip McKibbin, with whom I first wrote about the politics of love. The word ‘warmth’ might seem indeterminate or ambiguous (it remains, of course, a metaphor), but it suggests that love is a demeanour more than it is an act or a behavioural trait. ‘Warmth’ also shows that love must emanate from someone, towards another. The words ‘deep’ and ‘directed’ indicate that love must be more than superficial and that love must be personal and tailored. According to this definition, love need not be particularistic. And describing love as ‘a deep sense of warmth directed towards an object’ leaves room for attention, affection, attachment, and listening to be manifestations of warmth.

Love in Politics

In The New Yorker’s words, “love is in the air” in contemporary politics. In recent weeks, American politicians Cory Booker and Hillary Clinton have explicitly referred to love in politics, and Australian parliamentarian Andrew Leigh gave a speech on ‘the politics of love’ around a fortnight ago.

What role could love play in politics, where politics is the arena of disputes about the allocation of power? It’s helpful to split up the different functions love could have in relation to politics, and also to divide the varying registers in which people might speak about politics.

Love can have four functions in politics.

First, it could be a new motivating force for politicians, activists, and others involved in politics. Rather than politicians or activists or others being motivated by ambition or power, they might be motivated by a sense of deep warmth directed towards another — and a politics of love could be seen as a way to ensure that shift in motivation.

Second, love could be what we want all political action to express. If we accept that politics can express ideals (as Richard Pildes and Elizabeth Anderson have discussed in their account of expressivism), we could demand that politics gives expression to love, from the perspective of the impartial observer. This would mean that a politics of love would be focused less on the motivation of political actors and more on the substance of political action or policy. President Jimmy Carter once said that government should “radiate love”. He may have been hinting at a similar function.

Third, love could be the end-goal of politics. On this view, all political action would be oriented towards achieving love for all. This function would raise, particularly starkly, the question of the limits of love: should love be achieved for all citizens? For all within a political community? Others? We’ll return to this question below.

Fourth, love could be a virtue that we expect to be demonstrated by those engaged in politics. This function involves expecting certain standards of conduct and behaviour from politicians and activists, rather than calling for motivations or consequences.

A politics of love could be achieved through any one of these functions. But I don’t believe it’s incoherent to call for all four functions to be served by a politics of love: for love to be a motivator, an ideal to be expressed in action, an end-goal, and a virtue for political actors.

The registers — or voices, or degrees of sincerity — that people can employ when articulating a politics of love are three-fold. A politics of love can be superficial, minimalist, or radical.

A superficial register uses the language of love in a cynical political way, perhaps to gain votes. Some might attribute Hillary Clinton’s use of love in her campaign to this register. She’s said, “I know it’s not usual for somebody running for president to say what we need more of in this country is love and kindness. But that’s exactly what we need more of.”

A minimalist register accepts that there are different interpretations of love, and that we should all simply sign up to love as a starting-point — but use love to drive different policy conclusions. Cornel West, in appearances within Democratic Party meetings in 2016, invoked love to argue that Democrats should adopt a more pro-Palestinian stance. This was a minimalist register at work: love being given quite thin content, but being used to justify certain specific policy proposals.

A radical register — a radical politics of love — gives love more content, and claims that a politics of love requires particular policy conclusions. It claims that a politics of love must be applied to all within a political community, since love is inherently other-regarding. Iris Murdoch once said that, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Cleve Barlow, a Maori thinker, has expressed a similar point when saying:

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.

A radical politics of love acknowledges that we all need love, that we are all interdependent, and that certain preconditions of love might need to be met. It could result in a more welcoming approach to immigrants (including refugees) and a more robust system of welfare support. It might also lead in the direction of decarceration and prison abolition, since prisons deny warmth to inmates and lack love in almost every respect.

Che Guevara came close to expressing a radical politics of love in his 1965 letter to Carlos Quijano, ‘Socialism and Man’. Guevara wrote there:

“… the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

A radical politics of love best harnesses the possibilities of a politics of love. It achieves love in the most thoroughgoing fashion, going beyond a merely superficial or minimalist approach to the content of love to a vision of politics that aims to apply love expansively, generously, and ambitiously.

Why a Radical Politics of Love Matters

Could a radical politics of love be truly transformative, or revolutionary? It is not enough to add the word ‘radical’ in front of the phrase ‘politics of love’, and to assume that the inclusion of this word alone makes the concept meaningful.

One reason a radical politics of love could be transformative is that it could (re)open a space for emotion in politics. Political theorists have shunned emotion in politics. But many political ideals, like justice, have an emotional dimension. Freedom, as Nina Simone has said, is “just a feeling”. Bringing love into politics can remind us that politics cannot escape being emotional. As Marek Sullivan has said, we can then have more fruitful debates about which emotions should be a part of politics, rather than spending time emptily querying whether politics can be emotional at all.

A radical politics of love could connect politics, too, to people’s everyday lives. David Harvey recently said in a Jacobin interview that we need a “politics of everyday life”. A radical politics of love could give effect to that kind of politics — since everyone understands and appreciates love, either through its absence or presence in their own lives.

A radical politics of love is unifying, if not universal. Versions of this kind of politics have been voiced in religious traditions, indigenous traditions, emancipation and decolonisation movements, liberal circles, and socialist streams of writing. A radical politics of love is far from Eurocentric, too, having been developed in Latin American, Asian, Pacific, African, and European traditions.

A radical politics of love also offers the promise of an anti-selfish politics. Neoliberalism has succeeded since the 1970s because it has offered the interlocking logic of an individualistic, anti-public, anti-State vision of politics. What is needed as an alternative to neoliberalism, in my view, is a framework that is less selfish, more in favour of the ideal of the public, and clearer on how the State can be transformed into an instrument of public good. A radical politics of love offers the outline of an alternative to neoliberalism. Charles Eisenstein has said that to develop a compassion-based politics is “to enact politics from a different place”. The same is true of a radical politics of love.

In Defence of a Radical Politics of Love

Why a radical politics of love? Wouldn’t a politics of compassion, or dignity, or empathy be an easier pitch? The answer to this is simply that love is not the same as compassion or dignity or empathy. It is more active, more visceral. The fact that it has been less commonly invoked in politics is a strength, not a weakness, I think: it means that a radical politics of love is a newer, possibly more exciting way to frame what is important politically.

Some have claimed bringing love into politics distorts love. Hannah Arendt claims in The Human Condition that “love can only become false and perverted when it is used for political purposes such as the change or salvation of the world”. She suggests that love is divisive when used in politics. But Arendt’s conception of love is more particularistic; it is not clear that love needs to become “false and perverted” if we start with a more open, all-encompassing view of love’s scope. Sara Ahmed has claimed, relatedly, that a politics of love risks becoming a “humanist fantasy”. This is all the more reason to ensure that a radical politics of love has real content and substance — to ensure that it does not amount only to banal generalities.

We might ask, as well, whether a radical politics of love is consistent with anger. Salvage magazine’s May 2016 editorial expressed caution about Jeremy Corbyn’s “kinder politics” (which is a more limited version of a politics of love) because it precluded, the Salvage editors said, the “targeted brutality” that may be necessary in contemporary politics. Amia Srinivasan has also written powerfully on the importance of anger in politics, as “a reasonable response to an unreasonable world”. I think there is a place for anger within a radical politics of love. Sometimes to give effect to love we need anger. In fact, sometimes a radical politics of love might require anger. A radical politics of love requires us to angry about the prison system, for example, since prisons represent the ultimate failure of love — and since we can reasonably be angry about institutions that deprive vulnerable individuals of much-needed love.

Finally, how would love figure in policy trade-offs? How would love be balanced, say, against a £100,000 gain in efficiency? This question misses the point of a radical politics of love. In fact, it misses the point of political ideals. Political ideals — like freedom, or justice, or love — are not designed to be converted into numerical form within economic trade-offs. They are designed to be lodestars for political decision-making. If we must resort to trade-offs, political ideals can be used as cross-checks once we’ve undertaken trade-offs. We should expect as much of love as we can expect of justice.


Around the time of the rise of the Occupy movement, words like ‘Indignaos!’ and ‘Indignez-vous!’ became the rallying-cry of protesters in Spain, France, and elsewhere (inspired by 93 year-old Stephane Hessel’s book Indignez-vous!) — translated variously as ‘Indignation!’ or ‘Outrage!’.

As a complement to, not a substitute for, outrage or indignation, perhaps we need today a further injunction for work in the political arena:


Max Harris is a writer, academic and activist based in Oxford, where he is an Examination Fellow at All Souls College. He Tweets at @mdnharris

This blog post is based on a talk given at Open School East on 4 August 2016.


Systems, Souls, and Society.

Max Harris

Written by

Progressive politics (especially in UK and NZ), music/art/film, some law stuff. Author of 'The New Zealand Project' (BWB, 2017).


Systems, Souls, and Society.

Max Harris

Written by

Progressive politics (especially in UK and NZ), music/art/film, some law stuff. Author of 'The New Zealand Project' (BWB, 2017).


Systems, Souls, and Society.

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