A Radical Politics of Love

This is the text of a talk I gave at Open School East, London, on Thursday 4 August 2016.


I wanted to start by thanking my friend, the lovely human being and fellow New Zealander Emil Dryburgh, for inviting me to speak, and thanking all of you for being here.  From all the impressions I’ve gotten so far, Open School East seems like a place full of exciting possibilities, founded on values that encourage generative work and creative, speculative endeavours.  I feel privileged to be able to speak here.  I also want to acknowledge Philip McKibbin, a New Zealand writer with whom I first wrote about the politics of love; Philip’s not here, but his thinking has informed mine, on love and other topics.

My talk will have four parts.  First, I’ll explore what love is.  Second, I’ll sketch out some of love’s possibilities in politics.  Third, I’ll explain the significance of a politics of love.  Fourth, I’ll raise and address certain worries people have had – and might have – with a politics of love.

  1. What love is

“Nothing is mysterious.  No human relation.  Except love.”  Those are the words of American writer Susan Sontag.  And love’s mysteriousness creates a challenge as we set out to understand what love is, as a first step towards grasping a politics of love.

I’ve wondered whether, when we are discussing some concepts, defining those concepts is not only impossible but unhelpful: definition (at least in the analytic method) involves splitting an idea into constituent parts, exchanging one word for a set of other words.  It might be that defining a concept in this way – for at least some concepts, perhaps concepts like kindness – breaks down that concept into smaller parts, losing a sense of the whole of that concept, and replacing one word with a set of inferior inadequate descriptors.  Some concepts, in other words, might be not reducible to definition.

Is love like this? Is it impossible and unhelpful to try to define it, because we end up only reducing its meaning, finding other words that do not quite capture what it is?

Another question I want to leave slightly open, while expressing a tentative preference for one kind of answer, is whether – if it possible to define love – there are different types of love expressed in different spheres or merely one type of love that manifests in different ways in various spheres.  In other words, is there a single vision of love that we can plug into the realm of the political and the personal, or is the love we experience in personal realms in some significant way different from love as it applies politically? We might call this the contrast between a ‘pluralist account’ of love and a ‘monist account’.  Michael Hardt, the American literary theorist (who has probably done more than any thinker alive today to develop our understanding of love in politics), has raised this point, asking whether we might divide love into eros (romantic love) and agape (a more all-encompassing, perhaps thinner sense of goodwill directed outwards), amongst other possible categories.  Some aspects of how we speak about love – the fact that we have this special phrase “in love”, for example – might suggest that it is important to draw this distinction.  But I am suspicious of relying too much on everyday language usage as a tool for understanding concepts, and at any rate the fact that there is one word for love that carries across contexts might be given as evidence of the monist approach (if we were to take an everyday language perspective).  I want to probe, at least for now and in this talk, whether there is one general understanding of love, which can be plugged into various realms, including the realm of the political.  I want to do this because adopting this approach retains some of the greatest promise and potential in the idea of the politics of love, as I hope will become clear as I make my way through this talk.

I will leave open these lines of flight about the (im)possibility of defining love and the best approach to defining love – but for now, I’ll offer a working monist definition, to ground and focus the discussion that follows.

I want to build this monist definition of love up by extracting helpful parts of the accounts of love given by Harry Frankfurt, Simone Weil, and James Baldwin, and reflecting on the gaps or problems with each account.

The American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in a book called The Reasons of Love, says that love comprises 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”.  What is useful about this list is that it highlights that love needs an object, a beloved, and underscores that love is specifically directed – personally – at this object.  However, the list has two limitations.  First, it offers a somewhat cold explanation of what love is – love as “a disinterested concern”, love as “conscientious” attention – that misses something of love’s intensity.  Secondly, it conflates what love is, and what love requires.  In my view, at least, attention, concern, identification are actions that follow from love; they are not what love is.  The same can be said about “constraints upon the will”.  Having our own autonomy restricted is not what love is; this is a consequence of love.

French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil’s approach to love is an improvement on Frankfurt’s.  For Weil, love is “intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention”.  This pithy line has many attractions.  Love is connected to generosity.  It is “pure” or “gratuitous” or “disinterested” in the sense in which it is (at least largely) removed from self-interest.  The reference to love’s intensity captures something of love’s richness and depth.  However, I wonder whether Weil has over-described the content of love, and aimed to be so precise with her account of love as to leave too narrow a view of what love is.  Having these five adjectives – “intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous” – unduly restricts the scope of love.  And my sense is that defining love as “attention” is too minimal.  Love requires activity, and not merely having regard or taking notice of a person or object.

American writer James Baldwin offers a different perspective on love, in some ways addressing the flaws in Frankfurt and Weil’s definitions.  In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin describes love as “a state of grace”, “a tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth”.  Talk of love as a “state of grace” underscores rightly that love is, more than the mere act of attention, a demeanour or disposition towards something or someone else.  But then, in filling in the detail of that demeanour or disposition, my concern is that Baldwin is too demanding in his definition love.  Does love require as much as a sense of “quest and daring and growth”? Must it be “tough and universal”?

What is needed, then, in constructing a definition of love – based on these accounts – is an approach to love that: does not reduce love to less than its whole; can apply to different realms; can grasp love’s intensity or depth; does not conflate what love is and what love require; is not unduly narrow or overly demanding; and that highlights how love is set apart from self-interest and amounts to a demeanour or disposition, as well as a set of activities.

I’d like to think my suggested definition meets these criteria.  For me, love is a deep sense of warmth directed towards another.  The word ‘warmth’ might be thought to be a bit indeterminate or ambiguous.  But I think it captures what Baldwin is reaching for when seeing love as a “state of grace”: namely, that love is a kind of mood or disposition.  ‘Warmth’ hints at how love emanates outwards from someone.  The words ‘deep’ and ‘directed’ express that love must be more than superficial and has a tailored, personal dimension.  Attention, affection, attachment, and listening might be particular manifestations of ‘warmth’.  Note that there is no constraint on who might be the objects of love, and I do not believe love is inevitably particularistic.  This definition also underscores that love is associated with relationships, goodwill, and activity.

I should add that in considering this definition I have rejected the approaches of others to love.  The philosopher Slavoj Zizek, whose work I greatly admire in other respects, has said in Astra Taylor’s movie Zizek! in characteristically iconoclastic style that love is a “violent act”, an act that involves “pick[ing] something out”, creating a “cosmic imbalance”.  Zizek here appears to assume that love must be partial and closed in its orientation, an assumption that I reject.  But we might usefully bear this concern in mind, and return to it when we consider objections to the politics of love.  Freud also argued that love of humanity was merely repressed libidinal love.  I do not share this view.

I should also add that there are major areas of study and insight that I have not considered in building this definition.  I have not assessed, in any depth, what biology offers to our understanding of love – or what can be gleaned from poetry, literature, music, or art.  I’m grateful to anyone who might supplement my approach to love, drawing on these perspectives.  I’d be particularly interested in what art can offer to this definition.

The final preliminary point to make is that it should be clear how this definition of love differentiates it from empathy or compassion.  It might be wondered whether it is preferable to talk about a politics of empathy or a politics of compassion.  The preceding discussion explains why it would be a wrong to go down this route: a politics of empathy or a politics of compassion is simply not the same as a politics of love.  Love is more active than empathy, more intense than compassion; love is distinct, and cannot be reduced to these other emotions.

  1. Love’s Possibilities in Politics

With these preliminaries out of the way – and with a stable definition of love as a “deep sense of warmth directed towards an another” – we can turn to love in politics.

As mentioned in the blurb for this talk, references to love abound in contemporary activism, and increasingly in mainstream electoral politics.  In the last fortnight, The New Yorker published a piece entitled ‘The Power of Love in Politics’, and noted that “love is in the air” in “contemporary political rhetoric”.  The trend hints at the appeal of a love-centred politics, but it may also limit how we might imagine the potential for a politics of love.  It also usefully presents a range of ways that a politics of love might be deployed or manifested.

In this section of the talk, I want to use these contemporary references and the past perspectives of those who have connected love to politics in order to construct a matrix of love’s possibilities in politics.

At this point it is worth making crystal-clear that whilst ‘the politics of love’ is (I think) a relatively new phrase, and may have a tinge of fresh idealism and utopian thinking, I am by no means the first to reflect on love’s role in politics.  Particularly rich resources on love in politics can be found in religious traditions (in particular, Christianity and Islam), indigenous traditions (especially thinking in the Maori world, that is the world of New Zealand’s indigenous people, with which I’m most familiar), liberation and decolonization movements, the civil rights movements in the United States, Left activist thinking from the 1960s, so-called continental philosophy, queer theory, affect theory, feminism, liberal political theory, and socialist thought.  Amongst the most prominent figures in this context are bell hooks, Che Guevara, and Martha Nussbaum.  I will aim to draw on some of these streams of thought in what follows.

On one side of the matrix of love’s possibilities in politics, we can map the various forms love could take in politics – and this assists us in determining what the ‘politics of love’ is, and in particular what the ambiguous ‘of’ refers to in the phrase ‘the politics of love’.  (One thing I should also clarify is that I will not talk at all about politics within romantic relationships, or the politics of romance; my apologies to anyone who attended this talk believing that I’d address that topic.  I believe there’s a pretty poorly reviewed 2011 romantic drama with the title The Politics of Love which could offer more on that topic.)

Here I suggest four plausible forms of connection that love might have to politics, though these are by no means exhaustive.

First, we might understand love to be a motivating force in politics.  A politics of love might mean, according to this view, that politics is motivated by love – whether it is practised by activists, politicians, or others. This would place emphasis on the fact that in political action, we should not be driven by reasons of self-interest, power, or prestige, but should rather be driven by a sense of deep warmth directed towards other participants in politics.

This form might draw on how Augustine (the fourth century Christian theologian) conceives of love more generally.  For Augustine, love should be a motivating force in life.  In his Sermon on the First Epistle of John, he says, “Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.”

A second, subtly distinct form claims that a politics of love requires political action to express love.  Rather than focus on intention, this view holds that in the actions taken by activists or politicians, politics should express love.  It draws on the idea of expressivism, developed by political and legal philosophers Elizabeth Anderson and Richard Pildes: the idea that law and policy can express some ideals or values to the public.  On this form, specific motivations of political actors matter less; what matters more is what their actions express to observers.  One figure who has come close to this perspective is US President Jimmy Carter, who when campaigning to be President, called for the government to “radiate love”.  (I want to acknowledge that this form is not without its difficulties, and how exactly action is interpreted – so that we can say that it expresses an ideal like love – has not been completely clarified in the expressivist literature.)

Thirdly, love could be seen as the end-goal of politics, or at least an end-goal of politics.  Rather than love being the motivator for political activity, or being the ideal that is expressed through political action, this form sees love as the ultimate destination of the political journey. It might appeal to those who believe politics should have a telos, and less to those who think politics does not need or does not have an end-goal of this kind.  It also raises squarely the question, ‘love for whom’ and ‘for how many’? – a question to which we will return shortly.  It is not far from the paradigm that understands love to be the foundation of politics, a version of which was adopted by Australian judge and LGBT rights campaigner Michael Kirby, when he argued that love is the foundation of human rights.  Martin Luther King Jr. also articulated an analogous love-based worldview in a 1958 letter about nonviolence, ‘An Experiment with Love’.  There he wrote:

“At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. 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.”

Fourth, and somewhat in contrast to these three other forms, we might see love as a virtue exercised by those involved with politics.  A virtue ethics form understands politics not in terms of end-goals or foundations, but rather as a set of virtues that ought to be embodied and practiced by actors within a particular forum or setting.  According to this paradigm, politicians, activists, and others should do what they can to ensure that they are – as far as possible – directing a deep sense of warmth to others in politics.  This is not quite the same as the position that love should be a virtue we all exercise in our daily lives, a position supported by Russian author Leo Tolstoy – though there is some overlap.

It is helpful as a heuristic to distinguish these four forms, and to make clear that an adherent of a ‘politics of love’ might cleave more closely to just one of these four forms (or other forms not listed here).  But my preference is for a politics of love that includes all four forms: love as a motivator for politics, love as an ideal expressed by political action and policy, love as an end-point for politics, and love as a virtue practiced by those doing politics.  The main risk of this preference is incoherence, since each form reflects a slightly different and perhaps cross-cutting worldview.  But I do not think it is inevitable that adopting all four forms becomes incoherent, and I believe this all-encompassing preference is likely to amplify the power of love as a guiding ideal for politics (where politics is any dispute over the allocation of power).

On one side of our matrix, then (the ‘rows’ of the matrix), we have different ways that love find its way into politics.  Across the columns of the matrix, we can also classify the different possible depths or registers for that politics of love, once the idea of love has infused politics to some extent.  I will discuss three possibilities here: a ‘superficial’ or ‘cynical’ register, a ‘minimalist’ politics of love, and a ‘radical’ politics of love.

There is less of categorical distinction between these three registers, and we might better understand them as lying on a spectrum or sliding scale.

The ‘superficial’ or ‘cynical’ register deploys love in a thin or under-developed way, perhaps to win people over or to gain electoral capital.  Hillary Clinton said in June 2016: “we need more love and kindness in America.”  This passing reference might be an example of the ‘superficial’ or ‘cynical’ register at work.

The ‘minimalist’ register also involves a less developed concept of love, but involves different interpretations of love being articulated, based on the starting point that a love-based politics is important.  In the same way that we currently see different interpretations of freedom and equality being threaded out of contemporary politics, with some common acceptance that freedom and equality are important (positive and negative freedom, equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome), this register allows for various conclusions to be reached based on a shared premise.  Philosopher Cornel West, who in his broader work has a more radical politics of love, may be said to have drawn on this minimalist register in a recent contribution to a Democratic National Convention discussion on Israel and Palestine.

A radical politics of love suggests that we should not merely leave ‘love’ open to multiple interpretations, but rather that love in politics requires structural, transformative change.  The word ‘radical’ means to ‘get at the root’, and a radical politics of love is committed to securing the preconditions of love as well as love itself.  Consistent with the logic of radical politics, a radical politics of love also pays attention to the distribution of love – who is loved, and who is left out of love – and seeks the broadest possible distribution of love, while recognizing historical patterns in how certain groups have been deprived of love.  The work of Cleve Barlow, a Maori thinker, is instructive here.  Barlow says, of ‘aroha’, a concept with close similarities to 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.”

Che Guevara’s 1965 letter to Carlos Quijano, ‘Socialism and Man’ might also be see as giving expression to a radical politics of love.  Guevara wrote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Guevara also says “We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity is transformed into actual deeds”, which raises the question: what would a radical politics of love look like in practice? A radical politics of love demands recognition of our interdependence in a community – which, to me, requires robust welfare supports, hospitality to refugees, proper recognition of domestic work and support for families – as well as the dismantling of institutions (such as prisons, perhaps) that undermine individuals’ need for love.

My preference of these possible registers, as you might have guessed, is for a radical politics of love.  In the next section of the talk, I outline the significance of the politics of love – for the role of emotion in politics, connecting politics to everyday life, for building a unifying politics, and for developing an anti-selfish worldview – and a radical politics of love best maximizes how a politics of love might be significant.

One point that is left unresolved by this relatively detailed matrix is: who are the objects of a politics of love? Is it just a country’s nationals – citizens – or all people within a political community, or some other group? In my view, love is inherently other-regarding, and this impulse to consider the other justifies an ever-expanding “circle of concern” (in Martha Nussbaum’s words) that means that a politics of love must be focused on all people within a political community, and not merely co-nationals or citizens.  In other words, the meaning of love itself – in my view – requires that a politics of love be as all-encompassing as inclusive as possible.  It would be inconsistent with a politics of love to narrow unduly the scope of that politics.  But I accept that there is a hint of circularity in this formulation, and that there may be room for disagreement on this point.  A further part of the matrix (and I am not familiar enough with matrices to know what to call this!) remains to be supplemented in future, in order to specify the objects of the politics of love.

  1. The Significance of the Politics of Love 

The politics of love may have different attractions – and different limitations – to different people.  One of the major attractions, in my mind, is that it (re)opens a space for emotion in politics.  Especially amongst some Anglo-American political theorists, it has come to be thought that political ideas, like freedom and justice, must be shorn of emotion if they are to be invoked in politics.  Emotion has been viewed as an inappropriate, even dangerous, force in politics.  But conventional political ideas like freedom and justice might be usefully reconceptualised as emotions, or feelings.  I’ve found Nina Simone to be the best exponent of this view, in the following clip.  Simone says freedom is “just a feeling”, and interestingly compares it to love, reminding us (perhaps) that politics need not be separated from a visceral, affective dimension.  A politics of love prizes open that space further, since love itself is often considered a feeling or emotion.  If incorporated more fully into politics, a politics of love could remind us (as my friend Marek Sullivan has said) that the question in politics is not whether to accept emotions as a basis for argument, but which emotions we should inculcate and which we should reject.  This is an especially important point for progressives to recognize, as Jonathan Freedland has noted.  Freedland (much of whose writing I disagree with) wrote last week in The Guardian that progressives need not only new policy but also “a new way to say it”.  “If the political brain is an emotional brain, as the evidence has long suggested it is, then progressives need to start speaking fluent emotion.” progressives need new policy and “a new way to say it”.  “If the political brain is an emotional brain, as the evidence has long suggested it is, then progressives need to start speaking fluent emotion.”

As well, a politics of love creates the germ for a politics that connects directly to people’s everyday lives.  David Harvey in a recent Jacobin interview on neoliberalism has talked about the lack of a “politics of daily life”, and the appeal of a politics grounded in cities for this reason.  Love also shares this appeal.  Love is an experience that most people identify with, sometimes because of its absence in their lives and in other times because of its presence in their lives.  Though some people may associate love with pain, most can understand the attraction of love in its realized form.  At a time when voter turnouts are declining in many countries (in part) because of a sense that mainstream politics is disconnected from people’s everyday lives, an introduction of a politics of love into activism as well as electoral politics could help to re-engage people in the world of the political.

Third, a politics of love could be if not universal, then genuinely unifying.  References to love cannot be simply lifted out of their particular contexts and flattened.  Moreover, different thinkers have meant different things by love, let alone by a politics of love, as I have already suggested.  Nevertheless it is meaningful that a love-centred politics has been touched on within religious traditions, indigenous traditions, LGBTQ movements, the civil rights movement, and socialist streams of thought.  This is no Eurocentric tradition, either, with rich resources on the politics of love being found in Latin American writing (including the work of Che Guevara), Asian political writing (such as Gandhi’s work), and African and Pacific work.

Fourth, a politics of love offers the promise of an anti-selfish politics that is sorely needed on the Left: a politics of other people.  Neoliberalism has succeeded since the 1970s because it has built a worldview with an interlocking logic that has included a pro-selfish vision of human nature, an anti-public view of society, and an anti-State vision of government.  A truly emancipatory alternative to neoliberalism’s hegemony requires, in my view, an anti-selfish, pro-public, pro-State vision.  The politics of love could form part of that alternative paradigm, what Ronan Harrington has called the Fourth Way beyond the Third Way.  Charles Eisenstein in his writing has said that the value of a compassion-oriented worldview is that “it is to enact politics from a different place”.  The same might be said of a politics of love.  Iris Murdoch has also offered a glimpse of love’s potential to drive an anti-selfish politics when writing, in her beautiful essay ‘The Sublime and the Good’: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” (In that same essay, interestingly, Murdoch argued that “the essence of art is love.”)

I also have a hunch that a politics of love might have particular resonance and relevance for contemporary developments on the Left.  We have seen in recent years the rise of hyper-rationalistic movements such as New Atheism and effective altruism, as well as vicious calling-out strategies amongst the online Left.  My sense is that a politics of love might also inject a necessary values base into these hyper-rationalistic movements, and a deepened sense of care into the online Left – but I do not want to say anything more than this, since my views on these subjects are far more tentative and these developments are in constant motion.

  1. Objections

In closing, I want to defend a politics of love (and a radical politics of love in particular) against some common and likely objections.  These are not the only objections that might be directed towards a politics of love; nor might they be the most persuasive objections in your mind.  I’d welcome objections on top of the ones that I mention here.

The first objection (or cluster of objections) involves whether love is distorted when introduced into politics.  Hannah Arendt once wrote in The Human Condition that: “… love, in distinction from friendship, is killed, or rather extinguished, the moment it is displayed in public.  Because of its inherent worldlessness, love can only become false and perverted when it is used for political purposes such as the change or salvation of the world.” Read in context, it is difficult to know whether Arendt is merely making a descriptive judgment here – that in practice, love has been extinguished when it has been used for political purposes – as opposed to a normative claim about how love should be used.  But I do not share her concern that love must inevitably become “false and perverted” when used in politics.  Of course, we should take care to identify insincere uses of love – what might fall within the cynical or superficial register – but this does not mean that more sincere invocations of love are impossible.  A secondary, related claim is that a politics of love renders love so dispersed as to drain love of its vitality.  Sara Ahmed talks of the danger of a love-centred politics becoming a “humanist fantasy”.  Francois Juillien, the French philosopher, says a politics of intimacy “takes us out of the banality of the theme of love”.  (My thanks to Dan Kelly for this reference.) It is true that incantations about love trumping hate can sound empty.  But to me this simply highlights the need to give love, and a love-centred politics, content – and I think the best way of doing this is by developing a radical politics of love.

Secondly, relatedly, it is sometimes said that love is susceptible to manipulation and abuse in politics, and could become a dangerous concept.  In a letter to James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt expressed a version of this point, saying “Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive; you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.” It is true that love of country – the kind of love Martha Nussbaum discusses in her book, Political Emotions – can be easily mobilized into a form of exclusive, xenophobic nationalism.  But this is not consistent with the radical politics of love I have discussed.  I accept, too, that if it were accepted that love has to be particularistic, a politics of love could appear to be threatening – a way to upsize particularistic judgments.  However, I’ve argued that a politics of love can become untethered from such judgments.  Once a politics of love is seen as less exclusive, I think the power of this criticism withers away.

Thirdly: is a politics of love compatible with anger? Isn’t anger a necessary part of politics (especially a politics comfortable with emotion), and does a politics of love crowd out such anger? Philosopher Amia Srinivasan has argued trenchantly about the importance of anger in politics.  Srinivasan has said “anger is often a reasonable response to an unreasonable world”.  And activists, including online, have repeatedly pointed out how criticism of anger can be coded in sexist and racist ways.  The question is: does a call for deep warmth to be directed, even radically, towards an ever-expanding circle of people preclude anger? The excellent Salvage magazine’s May 2016 editorial hints at this when noting: “We at Salvage have long felt that Corbyn’s efforts toward a ‘kinder politics’ lean too heavily on the prefigurative, and that there is a case for targeted brutality.  In the absence of such a strategy within the Labour party, it is the extra-parliamentary Left which must excoriate these lost and sulking Blairite sheep, and let them know their perfidy is not unnoticed.” The suggestion is that Corbyn’s kinder politics (akin to a politics of love) prevents brutality, which sometimes might be necessary.  We might also think that there is evidence of love precluding anger in the work of Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, Jr.: both used a starting point of love to reach the conclusion that nonviolence was required.

I think this objection has considerable force.  My view is that anger, and agonism (or open conflict), are essential parts of healthy political debate.  But I think there is a way that anger can coexist with a radical politics of love.  A radical politics of love recognises people’s need for love and the deprivation of love.  In my view, such a politics can also sit comfortably with reasonable responses to a deprivation of love.  It can sit comfortably with anger in response to austerity, for example (which might be viewed as a failure of love), or in response to racism.  I don’t think this objection is fatal.

Lastly, a common refrain that I have heard (especially, interestingly, from individuals trained as economists) is: how would love be operationalised in policy? And more specifically, how would love be balanced against other policy goals, such as efficiency? Would it be possible to ‘trade-off’ love and other interests? This sounds like a problem for the politics of love.  How, after all, can ‘love’ be put on a scale and weighed against, say £100,000 in savings? Potent as this sounds, I think the point is a bit of red-herring.  Any political ideal – whether it is freedom, equality, or justice – is not easily translatable into the policy language of trade-offs.  But that is not the role of these ideals.  These ideals are benchmarks for policy conclusions, cross-checks for the defensibility of political choices.  They may not resolve tricky trade-offs, but they hang over all political calculations – and that, in some ways, is far more important.


To conclude, if you have drifted away while I became mired in building a conceptual matrix, I hope you can take the following what I have said.  It is possible to define love.  An attractive definition of love is deep warmth directed towards another.  Love can be connected to politics in different ways.  It can be a motivator for politicians, the ideal expressed by politics, the end-point of politics, or a virtue we demand from political actors.  A politics of love can also be expressed superficially, in a minimalist way, or in a more radical fashion.  A politics of love can also, I think, maintain the integrity of love, be safeguarded from manipulation, coexist with anger, and inform trade-offs.

Love may remain mysterious, as Susan Sontag told us.  Perhaps it is “just a feeling”, in those moving words of Nina Simone.  But if it is a mysterious feeling, it is a mysterious feeling with powerful potential to change how we understand the political.

I hope, at the very least, I have persuaded you that it is an idea worth considering for anyone who wants to build a politics that is more imaginative, more transformative, and ultimately more human.  Thank you very much for listening.


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1 Response to A Radical Politics of Love

  1. richard farrow says:

    Thank you Max for this wonderful talk. May I contribute a valuable connexion – the Hermetic Christian tradition that Love is from the One. And the One is the All – Lord of the Universe. And a thousand other names for God.
    Richard Farrow

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