The Politics of Love – Max Harris and Philip McKibbin

Around the world, progressive-minded people are struggling to articulate an end-goal for politics. The Right, in most places, remains committed to the tight logic of neoliberalism (and its ideals of private property, liberty, and efficiency). The Left, meanwhile, has failed to respond. There are some who still have faith in a Marxist vision of the total collapse of capitalism; others in the radical tradition 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.

And when we look to the work of academics and writers, we see end-goals and ideals that fail to inspire confidence. The grand ideas of political philosophy are often rarefied. Human dignity, for example, is an attractive concept, but it requires considerable intellectual work to connect it to the realities of everyday life. And thinktanks are invariably too close to the political sphere to contribute anything imaginative or truly original.

We like to think we are exceptional in Aotearoa New Zealand, but the politics of this country is not exempt from these trends. The Left has not voiced a shared vision for a better society – other than referring, in passing, to values like ‘decency’ and ‘fairness’. And there is alienation from politics here, too: around 1 million people stayed at home on Election Day in 2014, a lot of them younger people. The proliferation of political parties on the Left suggests the need for a more unified narrative. And here, as elsewhere, writers and universities – the engines of ideas in our society – have failed to produce that narrative to fill the gap in public debate.

It would be a mistake to think, though, that we, as New Zealanders, are incapable of addressing these problems. We have a history of progressive politics that has positively influenced the trajectory of world history. The narratives we tell our children – involving women’s suffrage, indigenous rights, our anti-nuclear stance, and homosexual law reform –provide examples not only to ourselves, but for people everywhere.

So what is to be done? We think the answer lies, at least partially, in articulating a values-based politics. More specifically, we think the answer can be found in the values of everyday life. Some of these values, like kindness, have been relegated to the private domain – for what is, in our view, no good reason. 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. Bringing politics closer to our lived values will ensure we are less alienated from politicians; it may also help to humanise the ideas that are developed by political philosophers and thinktanks. In this article, we sketch 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 that could be part of a new political vision.

We are not the first people to suggest that love might helpfully 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, Hone Harawira encouraged the New Zealand government to pass a bill providing free school lunches as a “show of love”, and many others (including the group Heart Politics in Aotearoa New Zealand) 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 can be expressed in different ways – for example, through words or in actions. It is closely connected to kindness, generosity, and commitment. The Māori concept of aroha, 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.)

We think that these understandings can inform our thinking and guide us in love. We would encourage everyone to reflect further on how love can be understood and interpreted, so that together we can work for the good of all people. Aroha mai, aroha atu.

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, of course, 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, issues that are largely political, 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; and 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. And 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 reconceived 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 politics of love could change how policy is delivered, and how the state is seen by those affected by policy.

Love could also prompt substantive rethinking in certain areas. Guided by love, policy-makers may choose to abandon certain policies, and to pursue others more vigorously. This will have to be debated – and we do not want to pre-empt the outcome of those debates here. But to illustrate our point, a politics of love might spark a renewed focus on rehabilitation in prisons, 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. A politics of love might also lead to the apportioning of more funding to community activities and support – such as counselling helplines and sports clubs – since these institutions help to build bonds of love among those who share a community. The aim, in this new politics, would be to achieve the preconditions of love within a community, as well as to express love itself.

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 would have love run through all of these decisions and interactions. It could, then, be an ethical framework as well as a political approach.

Also integral to a politics of love is collectivity. A love ethic, in bell hooks’ terms, brings people together – and reminds us of the value of relationships and collective endeavour. In Aotearoa New Zealand, te ao Māori gives 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.

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 or dissolve 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 potentially divisive debates.

One of the special things about values is that they are able to inform complex decision-making processes while maintaining their integrity, or purity, as values. In contrast to more prescriptive approaches, values can inspire action without compromising their capacity to provide us with different solutions in different situations. And there are numerous values that we encounter in everyday life that could also be translated into politics. These include (but are by no means limited to) compassion, responsibility, forgiveness, and honesty. We suggest that these can be understood in relation to, and interpreted through, love – but as these are complex issues, we will have to explore these values elsewhere.

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. Maybe it has been all around us, waiting. Maybe in politics as in life – to end with the words of a song – all you need is love.

The authors wish to thank Simon Waigth and Lana Doyle for their helpful comments on a draft of this article.

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21 Responses to The Politics of Love – Max Harris and Philip McKibbin

  1. RS says:

    I’m not sure how I came across this essay but it’s a good one. The answer is not politics, which is careerism; it is to organise, and, increasingly, to disrupt, by whatever non-violent means necessary.

    • mxharris says:

      I agree that organising and disrupting are part of the answer! But I think both Philip and I would say that politics is part of the answer. The struggle has to be fought on many fronts!

  2. grahamcameron says:

    Reblogged this on First We Take Manhattan and commented:
    Max Harris and Philip McKibbin’s rather wonderful ‘The Politics of Love’, in which they argue for a values-based politics informed by love. Given the failure of politics here and overseas, I highly recommend the article. You can also follow Max on at his blog.

  3. Makere says:

    Ka nui te pai. I am surprised not to have come across this blog before – glad that I have now. Thanks.

  4. Makere says:

    Reblogged this on The Turning Spiral and commented:
    Excellent post from The Aotearoa Project. Tautoko.

  5. Tracy Jane says:

    this matches my thoughts exactly – thank you for writing them down

  6. Cat Zavis says:

    I encourage you to read Rabbi Michael Lerner’s book – The Left Hand of God and/or Spirit Matters. It speaks to many of the same needs and ideas you express here as well. We definitely need to find a way to articulate shared values and visions, to put forth a worldview that is visionary, and to not be realistic! Please also check out the Network of Spiritual Progressives – http://www.spiritualprogressives.org. We share many of the same visions you do as well. Thanks for your post!

  7. Pingback: Jeremy Corbyn won because he offered something the others didn't: love | NS International

  8. Isn’t it a little problematic to argue that we’d have leftist policies if only people love, because surely by implication then we only have right wing policies because the Right does not love people? I’m not sure that’s an assessment the Right would agree with, and I don’t know if this really engages with a Right-wing view of the world. To me, this is a rewording of existing left-wing views and doesn’t advance us much. Which right-wing politician is going to be convinced to, say, increase welfare, with the argument “just love the poor”. I can’t see how a love ethic would break left-right gridlock, because it just raises the same questions we always face: do you really show love to someone by giving them what they want, or is ‘tough love’ just a right-wing iteration of austerity?

    • mxharris says:

      Thanks for the comment, Hamish.

      What we’re pushing for in the article is for love to be the lodestar for decision-making. In other words, in the same way that those on the Right and Left have different visions of freedom, but in many political discussions use freedom as their starting point, so too we’d like love to be a starting point for Right and Left from which debates can be had. The Right will have one vision – or many visions – of what is required by love. The Left will be the same.

      I don’t think we suggested in the article that only the Left can love. I’d like to think that right-wing parties can be in favour of prison rehabilitation (see some policies pursued by the Conservatives in the UK in recent months) or policies that favour beneficiaries (see the National-led government in NZ raising benefit levels – though National have harmed beneficiaries in other ways) or are welcoming to refugees (think the centre-right government in Germany). So I don’t think you’re right to describe what we were advocating as “leftist policies”.

      And at any rate, I think it’s open to anyone to argue for what follows from what love. What’s important – at least this is what we’re saying in the article – is that we start from a place of love in our political argument.

      Note, too, that I don’t think we go as far as claiming that a love ethic can break the Left-Right gridlock.

      And to your last question: I think it’s precisely those debates about what is love, what is tough love, and what is not love, that we think need to happen at a level of greater depth. Hope this helps, though I accept you might disagree with some of this.

      • Hmm. I mean I think that the fact that one needs to specify examples of right wing governments implementing those kinds policies suggests that they are aberrations rather than norms, and the article does seem to start from a position of “what can be the new narrative of the left?” and then morphs into “what is a new political ethic?” So it gives the impression that the love ethic is both leftist narrative and new political norm at the same time. On the gridlock point, yes that was me putting words into your mouth, but I suppose it was coming from this position of being confused about whether this was just a way of the left reframing classic leftist policies, or a suggestion for how politicians of all creeds can think about the objective of public policy. It still strikes me as optimistic to think that the right will just ditch freedom, switch to love, and then jump on board all of these policies classically championed by left-wing parties. I guess I just didn’t grasp the ‘lodestar’ point, and understood you to be arguing that the love ethic could be a new narrative for the left to advance its agenda.

  9. Rowan Magill says:

    A great read, thanks for posting this. Just had a few (hopefully constructive) thoughts I wanted to share.

    Certainly, if politics were guided by love, this would have a profoundly positive impact. What’s not so clear is how this would come about. The article mentions the introduction of love into the political arena, and seems to imply that being guided by love is something that politicians (or any person) can simply choose to do. That people have an on/off switch for love, as it were. Not that I think the article is suggesting it would be easy to introduce love as a guiding principle, however I question whether it is even possible to choose to be guided by love. Removing some of the acrimonious elements from politics does seem quite possible, but this is clearly not the same as introducing love (rather, doing so would possibly just lead to a sort of ‘polite selfishness’).

    I’m making the assumption that being guided by love is directly related to the capacity to be loving. Otherwise, any reference to love would become superficial. Take your average person – she has love for her immediate family, perhaps also her friends, and – at a stretch – feelings of love for the particular community with which she identifies. Surely it would not be true to say that the average person bears genuine love towards all other people of their nationality (let alone all human beings, or all living creatures). Those who do hold such universal love would be the rare exceptions.

    So if the average person or politician is asked to (or even voluntarily attempts to) be guided by love for all NZers (or all living creatures) in guiding her political decisions, this would seem to fall flat. Such universal love wouldn’t provide her with very substantial guidance because she cannot truly relate to it. Meanwhile, self-interest – or ‘love’ which is confined to ‘me & mine’ – would remain the much more compelling guide (as this is a reflection of her current state of development). So it seems you would be left with ‘politics as usual’, but perhaps with some tokenistic references to love.

    This ties into how love is defined. From a vedanta philosophy perspective, love could be described as relationships stripped of selfishness. We each have countless relationships with other people, creatures and communities. To the extent that these relationships are free of selfishness, to that extent they are loving. Put differently, as a person becomes increasingly unselfish, she becomes increasingly loving. Her ‘circle of identification’ gradually expands from just the individual to include her family, then her community also, her nation, all humanity, and eventually it extends to all living creatures. To be loving is thus seen as an effect – the cause of which is one’s level of unselfishness. Even where a different definition of love is used, such as “a sentiment of enduring warmth towards a person or people” the point seems to remain – that this is a capacity to be developed, rather than something one can simply choose to do or not do (regardless of their inner state).

    To the extent we remain selfish, we will also remain unmoved by love as a guiding factor. Trying to adopt universal love as a guiding principle while remaining inherently selfish may simply result in superficial references to love which would not hold much water if they were ever really tested (i.e: when the interests of the individual are challenged).

    If the premise that love must be developed rather than chosen is accepted, this seems to lead to the view that our focus must rest on individual self-development. As we ‘evolve’, a political system which is more guided by love will naturally arise. This is definitely not to say that political reform is irrelevant. Many changes could be made to policies and the political system to create a more conducive environment for self-development, rather than the current system which seems conducive for increased selfishness. Such changes would first require people/policy-makers to entertain the thought that there are ideals beyond self-interest which are worthy of pursuing.

  10. Peter Tait says:

    I’d like to see advocacy of engagement in politics. We don’t celebrate or even notice how much better the representativeness of parliament has become since MMP. Let’s push to keep extending that, the more people realise how powerful voting and other forms of democracy really are the more powerful the people become, conversely a culture of, “my single voice/vote can’t make any difference” seems to be growing in NZ and that can only serve the powerful. I despair over trends of declining voting.

    My wish, a campaign for NZ to be the first country to extend the vote to all people! And by that I mean let’s eliminate the voting age. If people learnt and actually voted while in primary school imagine how it would transform the attitude of politicians and society to young people, we talk about caring but have a real lack of love for young people’s place in society, no wonder they feel disengaged. If everyone registered to vote before say age 12, then researchsuggests they’d be much more likely to continue voting through life.
    Finally a thought I’ve always had on voting or not, or who for. I never think I have a single vote, but rather I’m part of a large block, 100s or 1000s of people who make the same decision the same way and change votes collectively even though we are only connected by our collective action. If I don’t vote then all the hundreds who decide the same way about whether to, also haven’t voted! So I usually vote, if you don’t usually and change next time you’re probably part of a collective action numbering in the 1000s!!

  11. pawani says:

    Hi,

    I am a law student from India and my friend at Oxford referred me to this work. Very happy to read this! I have been thinking about similar ideas for a while now. I haven’t explored other posts on your blog yet but I hope that the authors explore eastern traditions like Buddhism and philosophies like that of Mahatma Gandhi which essentially talk about the same ideas that are mentioned here.

    Best,
    pawani

  12. Sriram Polali says:

    Great post Rowan.

  13. Pingback: It is time to imagine our entire politics in loving terms | Philip McKibbin | Opinion | Deluxous

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