Love and Revolution
By Nick Southall
[The following speech was presented to the socialist youth group Resistance national conference dinner, held in Thirroul, Australia, on April 24, 2010.]
Tonight I will be looking at love as a form of power, a form of work and a form of wealth, as a need, desire, intention and action, and I will be locating our ability to transform social relations in political acts of love.
Capitalism poisons our lives with a concentration on consumption, materialism and competition, undermining loving relationships. Yet, alongside the system’s violence, exploitation and oppression, there are continuing struggles about who has control over social relations, social cooperation and labour, over whether love is destroyed, suppressed, harnessed to strengthen capital or used to build and extend loving alternatives.
The development of non-capitalist projects requires more discussion about, and a renewed awareness of, love. While love is often absent from political discussions and analyses, it has long been an important component of revolutionary praxis. In 1911 Emma Goldman (1911) pointed out that love was “the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; … the defier of all laws, of all conventions; … the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny”. Still love is too rarely discussed as a political concept and many people feel unable to love because they do not know what love is.
Our use of the word “love” is often so generalised and unspecific as to severely interfere with an understanding of love (Peck: 1978, p. 107). Capitalist culture has purged political conceptions of love from language. Love has been corrupted by religious and romantic fantasies, it has been enclosed within the couple or the family, within narrow notions, as love of the same, love of those closest to you, love of a god, the race or the nation (Hardt and Negri: 2009).
The idea of making love is often restricted to our sexual encounters. Yet conceiving of love politically means that making love is about much more than sex. My current writing is concerned with a reinvention of the concept of love, not limited to the couple, the family or identities. Instead I consider love as an expansive social concept involving struggles for community, cooperation and mutual support. Rather than there being a clear definition of love, love struggles toward definition and the struggle over love as a political concept can make good on the heritage the concept has. Today there is a renewed interest in love amongst anti-capitalists and an upsurge of experiments to unleash our positive desires for connection, for more constructive and profound relationships. Anti-capitalist love does not unify as suggested in romanticism, marriage, or the love of a god. Love is not a fusion, the destruction of difference, or a striving for sameness. Rather love is a desire for collective development and fulfilment, a social process that satisfies the need for love at the same time as satisfying the desire to love.
For Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s “socialism of the twenty-first century” is based in love. According to Chavez (2005) love “is what rebellion is; it’s rebellion out of love for human beings. That is the cause, the cause of love: love for every woman, for every child, for every man”. Denouncing those who mobilise around the politics of hate, Chavez (in Suggett: 2009) has pointed out that “The revolutionary acts with love for human beings and for life, not hate”. The revolution in Venezuela is not about class hatred. And while force is needed to dismantle capitalism, this force should not be hateful, but the force of love. Acting with love recognises capitalists as “personifications of capital” and that it is capitalism, injustice and inequality that we should hate, not people. The hatred of individuals, rather than a hatred of their class power and its effects, stunts our love. Understanding that people can change, assists us all to change, to express our hatred for capitalism, by learning how to love.
We do not have to love. We choose to love.
And political forms of love are not spontaneous, they require organisation and training. Love is a gift produced for shared use through a variety of organisational forms that coordinate, organise and plan this sharing. All over the world people can and do resist isolation and estrangement and build togetherness and communities of struggle by confronting possessiveness, prejudice, violence and the repression of capitalist society. Many movements have understood and articulated their struggles as forms of love and learning to love has countered their isolation and connected them globally to others involved in struggle. Yet when we touch the hearts of others, we also touch their pain and sorrows.
Loving does involve vulnerability and love is often seen as a form of weakness.
However Karl Marx (in Fromm: 1960, p. 25) explained that love is a form of power; a power which produces more love. Many people understand that this productive power is a form of work. The recognition of love as work, points to the importance of class struggles to liberate ourselves from capital in order to organise our own labour, as love. There is a common perception that love tends to be “women’s work” and that women are more loving. “Females are more likely to be concerned with relationships, connection, and community than are males”, but this is not because women are inherently more loving than men, but because “they are encouraged to learn how to love” (hooks: 2003: xvii). Since patriarchy has always seen love as women’s work, it has degraded and devalued labours of love. And when caring labour is labour for capital it can be extremely alienating, as what is sold by the labourer and commanded by their client or boss is the worker’s ability to make and maintain human relationships. Feminist theory has drawn attention to the task of promoting the value of caring labour, kin work, nurturing, and maternal activities and the extension of the power of love to the whole of society. Struggles against gendered divisions of labour aim to share the work of love and break down distinctions between the work of love and other forms of work, so that all work can eventually become labours of love.
Feminism offers understandings of how patriarchal power relations permeate our lives and that patriarchy needs to be confronted; if we want to know love. Without feminist thinking and practice we lack the foundation to create loving bonds. But, according to bell hooks (2003: pages 37 & 57), although feminism has exposed how patriarchal notions of love are ideologies of domination, it has also, at times, encouraged women to “forget about love”. Women have been encouraged to repress their will to love and to give up on “their desire for men to embrace emotional growth and become more loving”. This is partly “because progressive men have often been unwilling to be just in their relationships with women”, communicating to women “a lack of genuine political solidarity” (hooks: 2003: pp. 65-66). A successful revolution requires male conversion to feminist thinking and practice, as genuine love can only emerge in contexts where people come together to challenge and change patriarchal praxis.
The recognition of the value of what is often called reproductive labour must acknowledge that this work is still mainly undertaken by women (Donaldson: 2006: pp. 10-11); although, the loving relationships between all of us are crucial to communal relations and the resilience of class social networks. The work of kinship, the maintenance of family and friendship networks and sociability more generally are sources of material, emotional and psychological support playing pivotal roles in nurturing class connections of mutual aid which constitute a non-capitalist political economy. These social networks of love are the basis of class organisation, both within capitalist workplaces and outside them, organising and sustaining class action, a vital part of our class power (Donaldson: 1991 & 2008).
Our love resists, refuses and exceeds notions that human advancement and human joy can be measured by the production and consumption of commodities, by increases in “gross domestic products”, or similar economic indicators. Only within non-capitalist social relations is love genuinely valued, not as an economic form of value, but as a quality of life, of the wellbeing of living things. Having spent much of my life as an unemployed activist I appreciate that the generation of alternative values “from below” includes the knowledge and understandings of the poor. It is often those who have few material possessions who appreciate the value of love as a form of shared wealth. A form of wealth that can help poor people lead meaningful, valuable and fulfilled lives.
During the last few years the power and value of poor people’s love has been especially evident in the revolutionary experiments of Latin America, where the spread of sharing and barter economies that organise production, distribution and exchange through cooperative and collaborative labour, is weaving networks of economic solidarity involving millions of people working for common benefit, rather than for profit. As a participant in the Venezuelan barter economy explains, this alternative economy “is not just the exchange of merchandise, it’s an exchange of values, of solidarity, of love” (Pineda in Pretel: 2007). Progressive social movements have always relied on alternative relations of production, distribution and exchange in order to build the gift economy of our class. This economy replaces the yearning of individuals for commodities, creating collective support for needs and desires with the shared expectation that fulfilment is a communal necessity.
Loving relationships have been undermined through the development of property as the basis of human relations, and desires for love are often channelled into capitalist production and accumulation. Capital relies on the sociality of labour, on loving relations, while simultaneously using violence and repression to impose commodification and exploitation. Capital erodes the social fabric of love, violently destroying social relationships by incessantly producing poverty, hunger, war and the destruction of people, communities and the environment. This systemic assault atomises and separates people along the lines of gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, religion, nationality and culture. At the same time capital has developed sophisticated strategies for commodifying, managing and exploiting love.
As capitalism seeks to subsume every part of our lives, love has become an important target. A recent Australian Management publication proposes “serious conversations about love” to galvanise management and workers by encouraging them “to love their work, love their co-workers and love themselves” (Barker & Payne: 2006: pages viii & 7). Human resource management techniques utilise peoples’ love for each other to build “team work”, “team solidarity” and work morale, endeavouring to totally integrate peoples’ social relationships into capitalist production. Companies and institutions teach workers to suppress their own feelings and to police those of other workers, turning peoples’ capacity for love into an instrument of accumulation, a resource and a power, for capital. In his book,Lovemarks, Kevin Roberts (2004: p. 36), an advertising CEO, argues that because “the social fabric is spread more thinly than ever. People are looking for new, emotional connections. They are looking for what they can love.” Roberts and the companies that employ him believe that if consumers can be convinced that corporations are interested in love and that they care about them, people will reciprocate and love corporations and their products.
As capitalist culture tries to divide and separate us, it represents love as centred on ownership and control, teaching people to treat each other as possessions, commodities and competitors. The use of love by the mass media and consumer culture to sell commodities makes it appear hollow, as people are encouraged to find emotional satisfaction in private experiences linked to consumption. Capitalism strips love of its best aspects and repackages it as a set of product choices. Advertising “turns lovers into things and things into lovers” not only promising that if you “buy this you will be loved” but “buy this and it will love you” (Kilbourne: 1999: pages 27 & 81).
I was in town before Valentine’s Day and wherever I went there were red hearts and the word “love” plastered all over displays of chocolates, perfume, DVDs and jewellery. Love seemed to be on sale everywhere. But love is not a Hallmark advertising gimmick and you can’t buy love. Nonetheless corporations sell many products by using love. Just as consumers are seduced by products that are made to appear as if they come from nowhere — their production through the exploitation of labour, is hidden away when they are presented in the market — people are also seduced by polished images of desirable people in desirable situations where exploitation and oppression is also hidden. On one hand we are swamped by images of perfect couples and fed the idea that someone will come and save us and make everything all right. On the other, we are constantly reminded that relationships have a use-by date. Capitalism uses built-in obsolescence, a short-term limit on the use of commodities, to boost consumption and profits. In the same way, people’s personalities and relationships are increasingly marketed and perceived as another fashion accessory with a short-term use value based on self-gratification, performance and competition. Shallow relationships based on self-interest are regularly portrayed as the norm and as a natural result of the coming together of self-absorbed and greedy individuals, with the repressive and exploitative nature of the relationships condoned, hidden or denied.
However, the distortions imposed on love by the capitalist system shouldn’t prevent our revolution from being loving in character and proclaiming the importance of love. Che Guevara (1965: p. 211) explained that “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love”. Yet, according to Che revolutionaries must make an ideal of love for the people. “They cannot descend, with small doses of daily affection, to the level where ordinary people put their love into practice.” Che saw revolutionaries as a breed apart, different from the ordinary population. He laments that revolutionaries have to sacrifice their friendships and relationships with wives and children for the revolution.
Many of us know well, this dilemma, the stresses of putting our families, friendships and other relationships under strain as we dedicate ourselves to the cause. Yet today there is a growing understanding that these relationships are in fact vital to revolutionary struggles. Progressive social movements generate different types of interpersonal relationships through the creation of caring spaces, openness to diversity and the organisation of communal activity.They bring people together in organisations, protests, meetings and conferences such as this, realising a desire that is at the core of anti-capitalist visions; the desire to locate ourselves in community, to make our struggles a shared effort, to experience the tangible power and value of our connections with each other (bell hooks: 2003: xviii).
Militant women’s and queer liberation movements are part of a widespread understanding that the personal is political and that opposition to capitalism entails both an individual and collective rupture from capital; that revolutionising the world involves a production of ourselves and an ability to transform society; that helping others is not in tension with making our own lives better. To make revolution, we don’t need to give up anything of real value, we need to gain more valuable, rewarding and joyful lives (Hardt: 2004d).
Political conceptions of love assist in the clarification of our class power and how it flows from the strength of our social relationships opposing and negating capitalism. The recognition that love exists because of the labour of our class, and that it can be extended, helps us to compose social relations alternative to those of capital. Our class continuously organises ways to avoid, resist and subvert efforts to capture and control us that can be hard to recognise yet exist in the capacities we exercise in our daily lives. Love is crucial for powerful class struggle, generating the solidarity, support, connections and the common activity that builds the class. These loving social relations make our lives worth living despite, against and beyond capitalism, not just after it has ended.
The celebration of our love is today making politics more fun. The construction of alternative loving relationships involves such things as the mock marriages organised recently by the Wollongong Equal Love group. Or carnival festivities like the Love Parade in Germany that attracts over one and a half million people, or the Sydney Mardi Gras whose theme in 2007 was “defending love”. Mardi Gras is flamboyantly optimistic, acting on people’s positive and creative desires, supporting a diversity of loving practices, relationships and connections. By doing so, the queer community has claimed a significant space as its own, for joy and a sense of empowerment, that is secure enough to be opened up to all while affirming a politics that celebrates love, difference and having fun with each other. Even though Mardi Gras now lacks some of its previous radical politics and is becoming more commodified, many of those taking part continue to display and act on an understanding that what is urgently needed today is the development of a more loving world.
Humanity’s survival hinges on the preservation and extension of loving relationships that nurture the biosphere, people, flora, fauna, land, water, air, life. Much of our struggle is now concerned with protecting and embracing biodiversity and the creation of loving environments, focused equally on humans and the non-human world in a dynamic of interdependence, care and mutual transformation. A communal culture of sharing and caring can rebuilddisintegrating communities, habitats and environments, weaving supportive networks and movements. These networks and movements are produced out of recognition that the widespread hunger and search for love, for meaningful connections to ourselves, to each other, to life, cannot be met by capital and its state forms. This understanding promotes our power to overcome the lack of love, to transform and rethink the relations between all forms of life, rather than just by reforming a failed system of lovelessness.
Ignorance of how to love is a serious obstacle to revolutionary change. Yet love is something we learn by doing and we have learnt from previous struggles, creating a firmer basis for revolution, a foundation of loving experiences, lessons and successes. But wherever we organise loving alternatives, they come under attack from capital, and the difficulties of defending love in isolation make more apparent the urgency of deeper and more widespread revolutionary change. Our optimism and hope for the future can affirm the importance of love to a world that is different, where competition isn’t the nature of human relations, where our desires are real. Appreciating the value of love highlights the importance of moving beyond an appeal to individualistic yearnings for economic wealth or power towards collective desires for deeper and richer social connections, desires to share, to act in solidarity, to organise better lives together.
Our loving resistance is at the heart of the crisis of capitalism, because love is a demand that capitalism cannot provide, instead love is created by struggling against capitalism. Love is a gift produced by our labour; it is our wealth beyond the measures of capital, our class’s invincible power. The work of love is shared work, work that is vital to freedom, revolution and the creation of non-capitalist values.
Today there is a global movement to promote love as a power for revolutionary social development and change. And together we are already part of an alternative community, producing non-capitalist society, as a revolution of love.
[Nick Southall is a long-time community activist in Wollongong. He has been involved in a wide variety of political, labour movement, peace and environmental struggles. He is currently completing a Phd. at the University of Wollongong investigating contemporary communist theory and practice.. The socialist youth group Resistance is an affiliate of the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]