Reflections on ‘Revolutionary Love’ and the Politics of Love

[Editor's note: There is enough good stuff in this review of Revolutionary Love to merit being published by Tikkun even though there are a few major misinterpretations of my position about "privilege" and nationalism which I will address at the end of the article. 
--Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor]

Reflections on ‘Revolutionary Love’ and the Politics of Love

When Rabbi Michael Lerner generously invited me to write an article for Tikkun exploring the similarities and differences between our conceptions of loving politics, the first thing that occurred to me is that there are far more similarities than differences.

I came across Lerner’s book, Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World, last year at Epsom Library in Auckland, where I live. Our government here in New Zealand - led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - is sometimes held up as an example of caring leadership, but I dearly wish that it would embrace love. 

Although Ardern’s government is certainly more caring than the Trump administration was, there are many ways in which it is failing - especially on urgent issues such as child poverty, the climate crisis, and our abuse of non-human animals. When Ardern became our Prime Minister in 2017, I was glad, but also wary: it would have been naïve to believe we would achieve a loving society simply by voting in a centre-left government.

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Over the last few years, I have been sketching the Politics of Love, a radical vision of politics which reimagines all of our relationships. I understand love as an ‘orientation’. It is a way of relating: to ourselves, each other, non-human animals, and the natural environment. As well as guiding our interpersonal relationships, I believe love can govern all of our other relationships. The Politics of Love is a values-based politics: it mobilises loving values such as compassion, responsibility, and trust, which can guide action and inform policy. It also carries with it commitments to mutuality, anti-exclusive inclusion, non-violence, etc.

Reading Lerner’s book, I saw an affinity between his proposed plan and the vision I have for our world. His ‘manifesto’, which is written for an American audience, and is aimed at liberals and progressives in particular, sets out a programme of revolutionary love, imagining how it might be brought about in the United States of America.

Lerner understands that loving politics must be grounded in, and directed toward, action. One of the many things I admire about Revolutionary Love is that it is filled with practical ideas for creating a more caring society - like, for instance, decoupling work from basic survival needs, so that we have more freedom to direct our lives. This proposal - inspired by several months’ work on a kibbutz in Israel - will not simply alleviate poverty, it ‘will also allow workers to stay with jobs that feel meaningful and valuable for their community, even if the firms they work for can no longer afford to pay them.’

Indeed, there are many similarities between the Politics of Love and the ideas Lerner expresses. For example, I agree with his contention that transforming our social and economic institutions will not, in itself, be enough to realise loving community. He believes that spirituality is necessary, too - and I think something very similar: if we wish to transform our societies, we should let our highest values lead us. However, I prefer to talk about the importance of cultural change. There are people who, at the first mention of spirituality, will dismiss the notion of loving politics outright - and not without their reasons. I believe it is possible to present the Politics of Love in words that speak gently to everyone.

Perhaps my favourite part of Lerner’s book is his treatment of human weakness. He says that we should extend our love to those we disagree with, and that this must include those who do very bad things. In my writing, I have argued that we need to have love for ourselves, too, and acknowledge those parts of ourselves that are most difficult to hold. In exploring self-blame, Lerner shares his work at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, explaining the importance of recontextualising our perceived shortcomings:

‘Always, our goal is to steer toward the question “Is it reasonable to say you created this reality?” and some variation of the answer “No. Although we make our own choices, we do so in the midst of social arrangements that we did not choose and which constrained our ability to imagine alternatives.”’

If there is wisdom in his book - and there surely is - it is here that it reveals itself most clearly.

Nonetheless, there are things I would challenge in Lerner’s account of revolutionary love. First, I think his presenting a ‘manifesto’ is unhelpful in the context of loving politics. The word itself is problematic: it is strongly associated with communism, which will make many Americans suspicious of it. However, that is not my biggest concern. If we succeed in realising a loving world, it will be because we have created it together - not simply by following a plan, but by co-determining our future. It is very important that the contributions each of us make to loving politics are offered in a spirit of humility. We do not need manifestos written by individuals, so much as we need everyone to be contributing; and it is imperative that the offerings we make inspire collaboration in the truest sense.

(Lerner is not the only American to have written a ‘manifesto’ for revolutionary love. Sikh activist Valarie Kaur’s book, which was published only a few months later, is titled See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love.)

The second thing I disagree with in Lerner’s account is his insistence that we abandon the language of privilege. The problem, he writes, is ‘identity politics’:

‘[W]hen identity politics are uplifted but the needs of most white working class people, and particularly white working class men, are dismissed as “white privilege or male privilege,” don’t be surprised if many of them turn to the Right, which acknowledges their pain (while blaming it on the liberals and progressives who instead seek to privilege “the most oppressed”). The Right gives expression to the resentment many people feel at the lack of respect they get in their lives and work with the misplaced nectar that blames various groups of historically demeaned Others.’

I agree that the term ‘privilege’ sometimes operates to alienate people who, otherwise, would see us as their allies, and that some conservatives have taken advantage of this. However, the experiences of people who are disadvantaged cannot be explained exclusively, or even (I would argue) primarily, in terms of class. (I believe that the idea that the world’s problems can be reduced to capitalism and class is a fallacy, and with the same tools - selective logic and clever word-play, we could easily perform the same intellectual trick using sex, gender, race, or species-membership - and possibly much more convincingly!)

Sexism and racism operate in ways that impact people’s material realities, and pretending that privileges do not exist - which is what we do when we refuse to acknowledge them - means that they go unaddressed. A solution might be to ensure that when we talk of ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’, we acknowledge that the causes of disadvantage are complex, and that it is possible to experience brutal class oppression without also experiencing the compounding negative effects of sexism and racism. We can work to uplift the working class while at the same time acknowledging the reality of white privilege and male privilege. I follow African-American theorist bell hooks, whose writing on love - especially her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love - embraces men, while challenging us to engage critically with our privilege and work to dismantle what she terms ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’.

The third challenge I would make to Lerner’s account of revolutionary love involves his strong focus on, and apologies for, nationalism. Of course, loving politics is - by its very nature - focused on community, and it is important that we work with the communities in front of us. However, our love becomes distorted when it is conceived only, or even primarily, in terms of a specific community. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned against this when he spoke of ‘the barbaric consequences of any tribal-centered, national-centered, or racial-centered ethic’. When communities are conceived of in exclusive terms, love is undermined. (It is impossible to affirm nationalism without affirming some form of exclusion: national communities are defined as much by who they exclude as who they include.) I think any vision of loving politics that arises within the United States must critically interrogate the notion of American exceptionalism - the idea that the United States is superior to other nations - because as a nation it has been, and continues to be, a harmful force in international politics, with severe consequences for the lives of people in other places.

I do not mean to offend Americans, at all. In fact, the Politics of Love owes a tremendous debt to American thinking. Much of the literature on love and politics has been written within the United States, and without the works of thinkers like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, angel Kyodo williams, and Stacy Russo, I would not have been able to sketch the Politics of Love. Nā reira, kei te mihi, kei te mihi, kei te mihi...

It is worth noting that Lerner equivocates on nationalism. At the beginning of his book, he affirms the validity of nationalism; but later, imagining the future in 2140, he suggests that open borders will eventually become the norm and that the very notion of national borders will begin to disappear. This is pragmatic: any talk of dissolving national borders must acknowledge that it will only be accomplished in the long-term. Still, his defence of nationalism is problematic. For example, he writes that rather than celebrating Independence Day, Americans could celebrate ‘Global Interdependence Day’ - ‘a day that balances celebration of what is good in our country with critical reflection on the oppressive practices in our past and present’. Unfortunately, in presenting this proposal he stops short of explicitly addressing the ways in which American nationalism is connected to the notion of American exceptionalism. As a result, his proposal that Americans take the Fourth of July to acknowledge and reflect on our interconnectedness inadvertently supports that harmful notion, whereby American nationalism is presented as a tool for realising a loving world.

Lerner is not the only one to make this mistake. In her book A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution, Marianne Williamson attempts to summon American nationalism in the service of love. However, without a sufficiently critical analysis of American exceptionalism, and the ways in which it sustains American nationalism, her efforts to mobilise nationalistic sentiment for revolutionary change undermine love.

The Politics of Love is committed to anti-exclusive inclusion, and as such it works to abolish nationalism in favour of global community. This does not mean that it denies our differences, or erases diversity. Rather, it insists that our diversity can contribute to creating a community in which all of us are equal and each of us has a place. Indeed, I often describe the Politics of Love as a ‘space’: a round space, within which all of us gather, with our diverse knowledges and histories, to debate and deliberate, and from which we act.

Although I disagree with Lerner on certain points, there are so much more on which we agree. Perhaps where our views most align is on what Lerner refers to as ‘meaning needs’. In discussing leftist movements of the past, he writes:

‘Historically, socialist and communist movements […] focused almost exclusively on the external realities of life, the economic and political arrangements, ignoring the inner realities, the need to place love, empathy, and genuine caring for each other, for all of humanity, and for the planet at the top of their agenda. They did not recognize the importance of what I call “meaning needs” – being connected to higher values for one’s life than simply satisfying material wants and needs. They did not ask themselves how to shape an economy and political system that embodied and promoted that kind of caring…’

Where Lerner emphasises ‘meaning needs’, I emphasise values - such as humility, respect, and understanding. By affirming the importance of love and working to give expression to our greatest values, we will bring about a better world for everyone, together.

Rabbi Lerner's response to Philip McKibbin:

Thank you for writing this response to my book Revolutionary Love. There are two moments in this review where you characterize my positions in ways that miss my positions:

  1. You think I need to be told about the importance of fighting racism and sexism and instead embracing a crude economistic focus on delivering the material goods to the working class while abandoning the struggles against racism and sexism. That is not my position. Rather I'm suggesting that using the terms "white privilege" and "male privilege" makes it harder to win the struggles against racism and sexism. The 72 million voters for Trump undoubtedly represented a significant percentage of racists and sexists. But the research we did at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health revealed that many middle income working people were moving away from "the Left" was their experience of being disrespected. Over and over again we heard such people, who had voted for progressives in the past, saying some variant of the following: "Liberals and progressives disrespect us working people."  And when pushed further to give their reasons for thinking that, their response was to point in three directions: 
    • They hate and make fun of our religious culture, 
    • They think that we have enormous privileges because we are white, or 
    • They disrespect men and say that they have enormous privileges.  

For b. and c. these statements were followed quickly with variants of "they have no knowledge about the struggles I and people like me (whites or men) have to face in our lives and how very much the system is rigged against us in most respects. Yes, it is true that we don't get killed by police as much as African Americans, but we don't benefit when an African American is killed. But when lefties blame me for this because I was born white, I just want to slug them." My point is not to deny that there are some areas of life that white people are less disadvantaged than many people of color, but that calling this reality "white privilege" makes it less likely that we can defeat racism, and ditto calling out all men for their alleged privilege makes many men feel more aligned with the powerful. Far more effective to talk about the pain that many of us feel from the competitive ethos, the looking out for number one, the belief that we live in a meritocracy, the vast inequalities and the pervasive selfishness generated by the capitalist order which undermines our friendships and leaves many to feel that there is nothing real but accumulating as much money and power as they can. 

2. You think that I've embraced nationalism but that is not my position. On the contrary, I believe that all forms of nationalism lead to some form of selfishness and an inability to make the sacrifices necessary to prevent or reduce the damage that global capitalism has engendered. I believe that all nation states should be replaced by environmental districts that can develop regional economic and political plans on how best to coordinate with all the other environmental districts in implementing the most rational way to protect the life support system of the planet. But how do we get there? I propose that progressives start by celebrating the national holidays of whatever country they live, but do so by explicitly use those celebrations to teach the need for a new kind of internationalism. For example, those of our readers who live in the U.S. could celebrate July 4th as "Inter-dependence day with all people on this planet and its animals." Interdependence day doesn't mock national celebrations but rather provides a path toward internationalism, celebrating all the struggles for freedom, social and economic justice, environmental protection, social and economic justice, and a world based on love and generosity rather than on selfishness and materialism. This is a strategy to overcome nationalism--and if any of our readers want to read the advice about how to conduct such a celebration, I'd be happy to share it with you.

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