Philip McKibbin: Realising the Politics of Love

The Politics of Love is a values-based politics, which affirms the importance of people and extends beyond us to non-human animals and the environment. It asks us to reimagine our entire politics in loving terms. The Politics of Love is radical – it remains open, and includes all of us – but it is not extreme. It takes as inspiration the loving acts that permeate and transcend our day-to-day interactions. It asks only that we love.

Many of us are longing for a more caring world, the kind of world a politics shaped by love could help to bring about. But what would a shift toward loving politics look like? What is to be done?

The first requirement of the Politics of Love is that we care – about politics, and about each other. It is always as individuals that we act, whether alone or as part of a collective. For this reason we must resist apathy – as well as the idea that, as individuals, we cannot change politics. Importantly, we need to recognise that these two attitudes reinforce each other.

“The Politics of Love takes as inspiration the loving acts that permeate and transcend our day-to-day interactions.”

We also need to rethink our understanding of politics. bell hooks, in discussing loving politics, refers to the idea of a ‘love ethic’. All politics has an ethical dimension: politics concerns those of our actions, and those dimensions of our actions, that involve others. The Politics of Love requires us to recognise our interdependence; and as love is universal, it also asks us to extend our concern – beyond ourselves and those closest to us, to all people, as well as non-human animals.

It is important, too, that we think about power. There is no shortcut to this. We must learn about power relations, and how these operate to marginalise and exclude people. Part of this understanding can come through experience, and part of it will come through dialogue. Listening is the best way to learn – as is reading. Among the thinkers whose works have helped me begin to think about power are Martha C. Nussbaum, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

And we must act. We should try to work together – because loving politics is relational, and because collective problems, such as climate change, require collective responses. But you should also be willing to act alone: sometimes, love asks us to do what others will not. 

How you act will depend on your situation. Each of us must ask, what can I do to help realise loving politics? We tend to have rigid ideas about what political action involves, but persuasion, example-setting, voluntary work, personal projects, employment, campaigning, voting and public service – as well as many other types of action – can all be used to realise loving politics.

“You should also be willing to act alone: sometimes, love asks us to do what others will not.”

Persuasion is a powerful political action. I think of the people who have persuaded me in my life. My stepmother Kathryn had an enormous influence on the development of my political views as a teenager; her influence continues to inform how I engage politically now. And my friend Max Harris, with whom I first sketched the Politics of Love, has helped to shape my political views, through conversation and by sharing books with me.

Even more powerful than persuasion is example-setting. What we choose to eat, and not eat, is political: it involves others. I take seriously Peter Singer’s contention that unless you also oppose speciesism, “no basis remains from which you can, without hypocrisy, criticize racism or sexism.” But when I first heard the arguments for vegetarianism – although I found them compelling – I did not alter my eating habits. What finally convinced me to go vegetarian (and, eventually, vegan) was the example of others. People who took the time to explain their choices to me, but, more significantly, demonstrated that this dimension of ethical living was viable.

Yes, you may be thinking, but how does the Politics of Love tell me to vote? It is very important that we avoid thinking that voting is all politics is – that if we vote, we have discharged our duty. This is, nonetheless, a crucial question. The answer, of course, will depend on which country you are voting in. Regardless, you should vote on values, because – beyond campaign pledges – values determine policy and help to shape its outcomes. We should ask each other, which party’s values are most loving?

Central to the Politics of Love are loving values – such as compassion, responsibility, and understanding. These values derive from, and are interpreted with reference to, love. You can judge a party’s values, loving or otherwise, by considering its policy proposals, its past policies, and the outcomes of those policies – as well as its politicians’ words and actions. If you live in a society that allows you to vote, you should; but remember that love requires more of you than this.

Finally, we must nurture our capacity for love. Many of us have been brought up to believe that love is only ever something that extends outward: toward other people, other beings even – but never inward, toward oneself. This is ironic, because in order to fully love others, we must love ourselves. We should seek out loving people, and learn from them. We should also resist the accusation – which we often cast against ourselves – that we are unable to love. In his little book How to Love, Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh says,

“Since we’re human beings, we make mistakes. We cause others to suffer. We hurt our loved ones, and we feel regret. But without making mistakes, there is no way to learn. If you can learn from your mistakes, then you have already transformed garbage into flowers. Very often, our mistakes come from our unskillfulness, and not because we want to harm one another.”

When we say ‘everyone makes mistakes’, we remind each other that we are only human, that experience forms an integral part of our loving education, and – very importantly – that our imperfections do not condemn us as ‘unloving’. We should practice reconciliation, because, as Nhất Hạnh says, ‘Your peace and serenity are crucial for all of us.’ To love is to continuously strive to transcend one’s imperfections, and to actively allow other people to do the same.

The Politics of Love has the potential to transform politics. Loving politics is achievable, but it depends on us to realise it. We must recognise the power each of us has to help create a more caring world for everyone, and we must act.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. He holds a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Auckland, and is learning te reo Māori at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. Find him at www.philip-mckibbin.com.

Header image by Victoria Hollings.