U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Some Thoughts on a Politics of Love in the Age of the Deal

Today we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. In our national imaginary, some days aren’t like the other ones. The ordinary rituals and regular sequences of our lives get interrupted. On national holidays, we take part in rituals observed far less often, or we experience other ways of being that are on the way to becoming ritual. For now, and for the foreseeable future, Martin Luther King Day is unique among the other momentary interruptions. Its recentness makes it more solemn than other official days. A good number of us were alive before the holiday came into being in 1983. We also have yet to reach the point where Martin Luther King, Jr. might feasibly no longer be alive had he not been murdered in 1968. He would have celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday yesterday. For reasons like these and a whole host of other, more important ones besides, we haven’t yet done the amount—nor the kind—of collective forgetting that makes most national holidays playful. There are no fireworks or parades. I’ve never been to a King day barbecue or party; a “breakfast” maybe, a ‘luncheon” or “dinner” to be sure, but not a barbecue or party. Retailers have yet to capitalize on this day like they do Presidents’ Day. They don’t offer bargains on cars or mattresses, at least not yet anyway. King Day is still a day for thinking rather than deals—now more than ever. That makes it a day for intellectual history too.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between politics and love, about whether the two can or even should come together, about whether there can or even should be a politics of love. I don’t know the answer, but I plan to keep thinking about it. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked and wrote about love quite a lot when he was on this earth. He famously followed a version of the classical distinctions between different kinds of love. Eros, which he understood as yearning for the divine or aesthetic and romantic love, philia, the love of friendship involving reciprocity, and agape love, which for him was,

nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. When we love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes or ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does.[1]

Love, in this agapic sense, suggested the political sphere could be a space for the redemption of humanity, metaphysically backed and eternally justified. Love played a part in politics in order to transcend it for a broader “beloved community.” This required Christian faith in eternal life or at least in a potentially better, more whole future beyond the present. The Christian believer sought fullness or meaning from without and came to know it from within. Agape attempted to solve a very old paradox. Politics, if narrowly understood as the achievement of goods along the span of life on this earth, was potentially vexed by the prospect of eternal life. Christ healed people in this world, allowing them in some measure a good life in the here and now, but Christians were often called upon at the same time to renounce the goods of this world. As King had it, “unearned suffering is redemptive” for the nonviolent believer. In this case the sufferer suffered so that others in their midst might also come to know God’s love, to be redeemed. Agape was thus a distilled, pure love: “It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function in its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart.” It started from the assumption that people needed one another to be redeemed. Christ’s death was “the eternal expression of length to which God will go in order to restore broken community.”[2] This notion of a politics of love or beloved community required some faith in goods other than those of this world to make this very same world a better place for everyone. The philosopher Charles Taylor describes a similar “tension” or paradox this way: “There remains a fundamental tension in Christianity. Flourishing is good, nevertheless seeking it is not our ultimate good. But even where we renounce it, we re-affirm it, because we follow God’s will in being a channel for it to others, and ultimately to all.”[3]

Agape was of course the driving force behind nonviolent direction action and certain forms of civil disobedience, which revealed the highest political and spiritual good for humanity. At its best, nonviolence could create the “beloved community.” Agape was “disinterested” “redemptive” good will for the other for their own sake by virtue of taking part in God’s being, which in itself was love.

King’s politics of love also intersected with traditions of republicanism and contractarian liberalism. Because King dealt at times with civil disobedience and direct action, he had to start with the call of conscience, from Gandhi, a “soul force” that did battle with those in corrupt institutions who held power. At its best, liberal contractarianism suggests an imaginary political opponent whom I must try to persuade, or more importantly, whom I imagine as being capable of persuasion. Because black people under segregation had only limited access to the political sphere and thus weren’t considered part of the social contract by segregationists, it made little sense to make an appeal there as a practical strategy. Agape love made no assumptions about the capacity of one’s opponent to be persuaded. This kind of love didn’t necessarily require that kind of recognition on the part of the other, nor on their behalf. Yet liberal contractarianism could and sometimes did live comfortably alongside King’s politics of love in the rhetoric of movement supporters and activists, in appeals to the national government and to an imagined national conscience, demanding that the contract of which black people had long been a part, from the Declaration and surely since 1868 and the Fourteenth Amendment, be upheld.

Republican traditions are somewhat different, in that political spaces are governed by suspicion for authority or power that nonetheless makes use of power in a way designed to foster civic virtue, conscience or duty. Civil rights activists opened up political spaces of their own repeatedly as an exercise of virtue or duty, pitting power against power. Most forms of civil disobedience make sense in that tradition because they show the highest respect for the idea of law itself over and above forms of instituted authority, which are constantly threatened by corruption. Power is central in republican thinking, where collisions of interests struck in proper balance (presumably expressed in the idea of law itself) create the conditions for virtue. But King’s politics of love had psychological dimensions too. He contended that “Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities and fears.”[4] Given the history of the United States, that was a tall order.

James Baldwin disagreed with some of that for any number of reasons. In The Fire Next Time (1963) considering Malcolm X, Baldwin wondered why violence and heroism had been attached to everyone other than black people in the United States. It was a question that needed asking. The NAACP didn’t answer that question with its legal victories, nor did students in the sit-in movement in the South. “Things are as bad as the Muslims [The Nation of Islam] say they are—in fact, they are worse, and the Muslims do not help matters—but there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary.”[5] It was also foolish to believe that white people would give up power willingly or easily. Baldwin was at best incredulous that a white Christian God could somehow be helpful in a black world where alienation was often so complete from birth that love for one another was nigh impossible. Like King though, Baldwin knew that white people didn’t love themselves, that they projected their deepest insecurities and fears upon some monstrous notion of a black race. For Baldwin, a politics of love had to go deeper, down to recognition, eventually peeling away even the assumptions that made up racial identity. This was in certain ways qualitatively different from agape love:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. And I submit then, that the racial tensions that menace Americans today have little to do with real antipathy—on the contrary, indeed—and are involved only symbolically with color. These tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those from which love springs, or murder. The white man’s unadmitted—and apparently, to him, unspeakable—private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself[.][6]

This love meant unmasking and therefore recognition of the other (roughly philia). It also suggested becoming, that one join or become the other (roughly eros). It was dangerous for that reason, potentially murderous. Baldwin’s idea of a “state of being” or “grace” nonetheless suggested something unearned like King’s agape. He meant love in the fullest sense of its many dimensions. White and black people needed one another, but that need could hardly be disentangled from recognition of the other and from the overcoming of sexual taboos or projections, which could only happen once white people joined with or submerged their identity into the other. When it came to love, politics merged with poetry in Baldwin’s thinking. A politics of love meant the courage to speak the unspeakable in much the same way that the poet gathers up being by putting it into words. It was dangerous for that reason. It required almost unimaginable but absolutely essential risks, the willingness to utter what, historically, had been the killing or the loving word. Baldwin insisted that white people give up their delusions and illusions of power, or to use anachronistic terms, “whiteness” or “privilege,” words whose power to kill or to embrace is now potentially undermined amidst widespread overuse for didactic purposes, especially as species of white liberal self-help.

Hannah Arendt thought Baldwin’s politics of love was far too dangerous. In a letter to him she wrote,

What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end.  In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy.  All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people.  They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs.  Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes.  Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive; you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.[7]

I don’t know what Baldwin made of this. Maybe Arendt’s idiosyncratic understanding of the political, her esteem for it, made this observation confusing at first. (“Characteristics” like the “humanity” of Negro people “have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes”?) Without further thought, she might have come off as another hardheaded political “realist.” It would be a mistake to think that way. It’s hard to know, but Arendt might have appreciated Baldwin’s attempt to see in politics something beyond crude considerations of power, where power referred exclusively to means and ends. Maybe he simply went too far in the correction. Arendt’s moderns had devalued the political realm, construing it as concern for means and ends, a space for making things rather than for fostering genuine human action, which was the capacity to begin anew, the space of freedom. In the best sense, politics as human freedom wasn’t without the features that, without careful consideration, could be perilous to us: irreversibility and unpredictability. It wasn’t without risks. The problem was that too often moderns thought politics actually meant the effort to remove or subdue unpredictability. Who among us doesn’t sometimes see politics as a necessary but messy step along the road toward some ultimate goal, be it liberation, the end of history, the satisfaction of material want and worry, the coming of perfect harmony? At the very least, maybe Arendt appreciated Baldwin’s efforts, at different places in Fire, to undermine linear ideas of progress like these for “the present.”[8]

Under conditions of human plurality—where each person was an irreducibly unique “who” and not only a “what”—and freedom—where potentially our deeds could not be undone and our activities could not be predicted—Arendt thought we might forgive and we might make promises. Forgiveness allowed us to undo our deeds and those of others so that we might manage the problem of irreversibility, which was really a problem of time, our inability to go back. Promises and the ability to keep them meant we could weather unpredictability. In neither case could or should we master those features of human freedom though, because to do that would potentially destroy power and with it freedom, substituting for it something unhuman and unworldly. Forgiveness and promises retained human freedom while making politics livable.

As long as there were humans, there would always be unique persons who would act along with one another, always in webs of interdependence, however intermittently. Like King and like Baldwin, Arendt knew well enough that we needed one other. It was central to her idea of the political. Whether that need had its sources in the divine or the eternal as King had supposed mattered not at all, but it couldn’t come from the intense kind of love James Baldwin described. Love had no place in politics because it was unconditional. Respect, not love, was the source of forgiveness in the political sphere:

For love, although it is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives, indeed possesses an unequaled power of clarity of vision for the disclosure of who, precisely because it is unconcerned to the point of total unworldliness with what the loved person may be, with his qualities and shortcomings no less than with his achievements, failings and transgressions. Love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates to us and separates us from others.[9]

Now can we begin to see what Arendt meant by the suffering of pariahs lasting not five minutes after the moment of liberation. Famously, she appreciated persons and cared little for peoples. And when it came to politics, love, while it could recognize the irreducible uniqueness and singularity of a person (“who”) could also be “unworldly,” destroying the “in-between.” It was best kept private. Love, like violence, meant the end of speech, and the end of speech meant the closing of political space and with it the potential for human freedom. Thus the love for one’s people that came with oppression could not last under conditions of human plurality and freedom.

Whatever the differences, each of these thinkers sought clarity. Each thought that politics was or ought to be about more than simple means and ends, the allocation of resources, or illusions of mastery. Politics was not simply the art of deception, nor of “the deal.” Martin Luther King, Jr. thought clarity might be achieved once we believed that everybody was somebody, made in God’s image. James Baldwin thought that the “relatively conscious” among us, if we could be honest with one another, “like lovers” could “create the consciousness of the others.”[10] Arendt thought that we were at our best when we were free, when we created, started anew, something that love could only threaten.

So Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a strange day, because we think and reflect on this day in ways different from other holidays. It’s strange too because this day is a civic commemoration for an apostle of love. This is unsettling, as it should be. Let’s hope it stays that way for the foreseeable future.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Nonviolence and Racial Justice (1957)” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Melvin Washington, ed. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), 8-9. Also, “Love, Law and Civil Disobedience (1961),” 46-47.

[2] King, “An Experiment in Love (1958),” in Testament, 18, 20.

[3] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard Belknap, 2007), 18.

[4] King, “Experiment,” 19.

[5] Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, (Vintage, 1993), 59. Baldwin adapted the text of the first part of Fire (“My Dungeon Shook”) from an article for The Progressive in December 1962, and second part (“Letter from a Region of My Mind”) for The New Yorker in its November 17, 1962 issue.

[6] Ibid, 95-96.

[7] Letter from Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin, 21 November, 1962. http://www.hannaharendt.net/index.php/han/article/view/95/156

[8] See Baldwin, Fire, 43-44.

[9] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (Chicago, 1998 [1958]), 242.

[10] Baldwin, 105.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Pete, this is such a lovely and poetic meditation on the meaning of the day. Two books immediately suggest themselves as relevant: Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Nation of Outsiders, and Kathryn T. Gines’s Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question.

    • Thank you Kurt for the compliment and for the really good secondary lit suggestions for thinking in and around this topic. At least since the first time I read Ellison’s Invisible Man, I’ve been bothered by a question the protagonist asks late in the book, whether politics “could ever be an expression of love.” It stuck out for me in a novel that’s very much about different kinds and degrees of deception and competing realities.

  2. Pete: Thanks so much for this. Philosophically, I think that a politics of love is only real if it manifests in an action of giving—either materially or in the form of time-labor self-sacrifice for others. I don’t know how that falls on the King-Baldwin-Arendt axis regarding the politics of love, but I know that something more is needed beyond recognition of that human other—something beyond empathy or sympathy. I’m pretty sure that the rest of King’s corpus gets us to that point, though I can’t point to a specific text as I type this comment. – TL

    • Thank you Tim for your response. Thanks too for being such a great steward of our blog community here. So I think I see what you’re getting at. As we’re often reminded, King wrote and spoke a good deal about economic justice. This has become something of a trope in civil rights commemoration by now, that is, the radical King ignored in popular memory, co-opted as a feel good figure, etc. It’s one of the better developments in our recent civil rights imaginary, probably because it happens to be true.

      I suppose I was concerned with the ontological status of politics and love, as types of being. That runs deeper than simple sympathy or empathy. It can involve recognition, but as I showed, that recognition doesn’t have to be a whole lot more than seeing the other as a child of God (agape). That’s no small potatoes of course.

      In any case, all of that is different from action in the sense of giving in material or temporal terms, etc. I could conceive of any number of human relationships based upon giving that have very little to do with love. Rather, it could be a matter of justice. In Rawls’ original position, for example, the actors there decide that certain mild forms of redistribution make sense. Without identifying the other, they decide what is fair. That’s not love, but reason, a kind of calculation of what’s in one’s best interest (hardly sacrifice in the way you describe it, but you see my point).

      On the other hand, a person could give something up to another person, be it time or resources, but it’s an open question whether that activity is done out of love, or for some other reason. It certainly could be, but it’s not the action in itself that determines whether the type of being-in-the-world in question is love.

      I’m willing to make a sacrifice for someone. I would die for someone I love, but that action is not in itself love. It’s an outcome of that love for sure, but it doesn’t suggest that in the absence of that particular action, I don’t love them. Is my love not real then unless it’s made concrete in some sort of action? Where does it go then in the absence of that action? It’s a willingness or grounding for that action, not the action alone, right? I guess I’m thinking about what that willingness/grounding is. It follows that if politics is something higher than simply means and ends, then we can’t see love only in terms of time, labor, or materials. I like this idea of self-sacrifice. That seems to me to make it something other than transactional. Still, I could see making a sacrifice out of respect say, for some higher moral law or principle rather than love for another.

      In any case, I think this is what Baldwin is getting at. He’s very clear that white people need to sacrifice, to give up their status and lots of the wealth and material goods they have historically enjoyed, and he’s realistic enough to know that they won’t do that willingly. That’s why he moves on to the gospel of love that Arendt worries over. He realizes that he needs to go deeper, to think about love as a state of being, in other words its ontological status.

      Arendt thinks that love, being unconditional, makes us willing to do pretty much anything, and she think’s that’s dangerous and unworldly.

      • I’m with you on the welcome development, over the past few years, of remembering the radical King.

        Agape love, as I understand it from my shallow reading (C.S. Lewis’s wonderful text), does involve what I was driving at—material deeds as outgrowth of a love that demands nothing in return. So perhaps I was underestimating the material expressions possible in your essay.

        Aside: I wonder what’s been written—philosophically or theologically—on the willing surrender of taxes as an expression of agape love? I mean that one pays with the possibility, of course, that one’s money won’t be seen to directly benefit you. The agape part would manifest in your attitude about returns, and with a sense of the general good as the overall possibility (desired and calculated in a rationally-structured society). You pay with a *general* return in mind, but will be disappointed with assumptions about particulars.

        My apologies if this aside is too distracting. – TL

  3. That’s a really interesting question Tim, not distracting at all. I’m drawn back to John Rawls and Theory of Justice for these kinds of questions. The kind of redistribution (stuff like taxes, or for that matter forms of affirmative action, which Thomas Nagel has argued Rawls would have supported) that would take place from the vantage point of the original position in the end aren’t entirely incommensurable with a love of humanity, sort of agape love: “a love of mankind that wishes to preserve the distinction of persons, to recognize the separateness of life and experience…”

    Rawls thinks that this sort of love is motivated by the desire for justice, but with a greater intensity of desire, even to the point that a person would go beyond the requirements of justice in the original position (sacrifice), where the players are all mutually disinterested individuals. Rawls thinks that the original position can work along with considerations of love for that reason, even though the people who step behind the veil of ignorance don’t start with the assumption of benevolence. (It’s a space of pure reason among reasoning and reasonable people.)

    So Rawls’ solution is something like what you’re talking about I think, in that it can work with this agape, a general love of humanity. For Rawls anyhow, the original position begins to solve the problem of what to do when one’s love for humanity runs into conflicts between different goods, when love gets stuck and we have to choose between competing or conflicting goods, like questions of how to distribute wealth or taxes. As you say, when “you might be disappointed with assumptions about the particulars.” There he thinks we can then appeal to the two principles of justice that have been established from the original position (roughly: equal rights and liberties first; and second, the arrangement of social and economic inequalities so that they are to everyone’s advantage and everyone has equal opportunity/access).

    I’m not a Rawlsian by any means, but I think this begins to answer the question.

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