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Love and hate politics

‘Love versus hate’ has become a standard frame for describing today’s primary political divide. In the face of the world-wide rise of right-wing movements and governments, and especially since the demonstration of fascist and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, it is generally taken for granted that hatred is the prime motivation for the most horrible and destructive political forces.

This depiction of the political landscape, however, obscures the real nature and motivations of contemporary right-wing movements and, moreover, prevents us from recognizing what would be necessary for love to play a progressive and even revolutionary role.

The conception of a love versus hate political divide should be troubled, first of all, by the fact that those political forces charged with hate generally understand themselves in terms of love. Marine Le Pen, for instance, whose anti-migrant rhetoric echoes that of numerous other right-wing political forces, including Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign, insists that her real message is love. When accused of drawing on the anger of white voters and fomenting hatred against migrants during her 2017 presidential bid, she countered that “The banner I fly is love. Love that the French have for their country, their culture, their identity, their landscape, their history.”

On another occasion, Le Pen castigated the mainstream press for using the word ‘xenophobic’ to describe her supporters’ common chant  “on est chez nous” – which could be translated as “we are at home” or, more aggressively, “this is our house.” “But no, gentlemen and ladies,” she asserted, “it is not a cry of xenophobia, it is a cry of love for what belongs to us, our country. Yes, you are at home!” The mistake of critics, according to Le Pen, is to interpret her followers as being motivated in relation to those outside, whereas their prime motivation is inward looking – a love of one’s own.

Germany’s Identitarian Movement (Identitäre Bewegung), an anti-migrant and anti-Islam movement that bears strong resemblances to segments of the alt-right in the United States, celebrates “homeland love” (heimatliebe) with a similarly inward orientation. “The love of one’s own and the consciousness of our ethno-cultural identity,” the group affirms on its website, “are a matter of course, for which we should not be ashamed.” This love is the basis for conducting projects such as a sea campaign to prevent rescue vessels from saving migrants in the Mediterranean.

People protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline stand in the street with signs and banners by Pax Ahimsa Gethen. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Even white supremacists insist they are guided by love. Sara Ahmed analyzed, for instance, how white supremacist “hate groups” conceive of themselves as “love groups,” driven by a deep pride in the “white racial family.” Acting out of love in such political movements does not mean, of course, that hate is not part of the mix. The point is that they love their own kind first and foremost; hatred of others is secondary, a consequence of love of the same. What appears as hate from the outside, then, is understood and experienced from the inside as love.

It may be tempting, when such violent and reactionary political movements claim they are motivated by love, to respond that, no, despite what they say and even what they feel, that is not really love. Seeking to disqualify claims of political love in this way, however, is not only condescending but also counterproductive because it prevents us from understanding the powers of attraction of these movements and grasping the experience and consciousness of participants. To admit that they act out of love does not justify or condone their actions but instead constitutes a first step toward understanding their worldview. (This was Wilhelm Reich’s point many years ago in studying the mass psychology of fascism and it is the basis for recent studies of Trump voters, like that of Arlie Hoschschild.) And recognizing this should focus critical attention on the mode of love that drives them – a vile, identitarian love.

So should we seek to ban love from politics entirely? Hannah Arendt came to that conclusion, and she warned against political invocations of love equally on the right and the left. In response to James Baldwin’s appeals to love, for example, Arendt declared that with regard to politics “hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive.” Trying to ban love from politics, however, is probably a futile endeavor and, perhaps more importantly, it risks depriving politics of one of its most powerful and transformational forces.

All modes of political love are not equal. Reactionary movements deploy a love based on sameness: loving those who are like you, reinforcing an identity that is imagined to be pure, such as the white racial family or Christian Europe. Therefore if, as Che Guevara says, a true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love, then revolutionaries must first invent a new mode of love, which is open outward to engage with differences, which constructs strong social bonds based on multiplicity, and which uses its power to set in motion a process of social liberation.

Building blocks for such a notion of love can be found in many contemporary liberation movements. Lasting bonds based on multiplicity (even though not expressed in terms of political love) were developed, for example, at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock. The protests brought together an historic gathering of North American tribes, as well as various environmental movements, other allies, and even military veterans. But the “water protectors” insisted that we need to learn to live in relation not only to each other but also to other species and to the earth itself, extending the need to form bonds to another level of multiplicity, well beyond the human. Naomi Klein reports that Brave Bull Allard, the official historian of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, conceives the aim of the protests as not only to protect the earth and the water but also “to help humanity answer its most pressing question: how do we live with the earth again, not against it?” This project can be conceived in terms of political love because, well beyond any rational calculus, it creates deep and lasting affective bonds that require those involved to undergo a radical subjective transformation. In other words, the point of such a political love, to extend Marx’s famous thesis, is both to change the world and to change ourselves.

The specific elements of the political love one might discern at Standing Rock are not as important to me as the logic of multiplicity on which the bonds are based. That logic can at least serve as one building block for a mode of love that might deserve to be called revolutionary.

Featured image credit: Meeting 1er mai 2012 Front National by Blandine Le Cain. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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