The politics of love and power

In recent years the idea of love has become increasingly important in political thinking. It’s one of life’s main driving forces, of course. But it’s not a word that has in previous decades been much associated with politics.

In the New Zealand context, Max Harris – channelling a range of thinkers including bell hooks – has been the most prominent advocate for the idea that we need a politics of love – that politics needs to be motivated by feelings of warm affection towards others.

I agree with the basic idea. In fact, if we can’t manage feelings of warmth, affection and love towards our fellow citizens, things will be pretty grim indeed. There are limits on how much we can love people we don’t see regularly or who are not related to us; love does become attenuated. But it’s still a valid ambition.

My reservations are probably more to do with the other things you need in politics. It is all very well loving our fellow citizens: but what if they don’t love us back? What if, furthermore, despite our best efforts at building a more compassionate society, some people continue to seek excessive and illegitimate power over others? What if those who currently exercise power hold onto it very tightly, and are quite resistant to the calls for a politics of love?

Questions like these stop me from being unconditionally supportive of the politics of love agenda. To put it differently: politics, like life, is complex. Love, to be sure, is a powerful force. You could say, “All this earth is love,” and that would be true in a general if not in an exact sense. But, without wanting to be too grim and Manichaean about things, who holds power also matters enormously, and you have to understand where it lies, who holds it, and how it can be redistributed more equally. After all power can be used to oppose love. A politics of love, in short, is nothing without a politics of power.

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