Strange, the concept that has most enamoured my conscience since returning from my travels is that of “love”. I read “Prisoner of Love” on the airplane, and it put a lot of things together for me. Solidarity, revolution, resistance, taking sides. These are not acts of conscious reason, acts of pragmatic improvement. These are acts which have the feel the absolute in them, the transcendent. And I think there’s a good reason for this.
But first – liberal politics, what is it? I think I learned in Foundations 103 about a hundred ago that politics, and by that they meant liberal politics because we didn’t study any revolutions in Foundations 103, was the ‘art of the possible’. I think it’s more often theorized as the science of the possible, whereas “art” is probably a fairer description of what politiciens actually get up to,but I won’t get into that distinction at this time. The emphasis on the “possible” is essential, and “possible” is actually a very restrictive idea. It means (liberal) politics only concerns itself with things which are possible given the existing arrangements, given the existing organs of power, given the existing discourse, given existing public sentiment, etc… Liberal politics isn’t concerned with transforming the world, just making it a little bit better as is possible given the circumstances.
Liberal politics doesn’t need love, because it doesn’t transcend anything. It doesn’t go beyond the normal, the everyday – it stays within those parameters, ideally making the most progress possible without stepping over the pragmatic boundaries for action. Liberal politics doesn’t need a family, or an in-group, it doesn’t need a militia or people to die on the barricades when the army stands down their non-violent protest.
Revolutionary politics is a politics of love because it transcends, it demands the impossible. To be clear what it actually demands is for the situation to revolve, to re-orient, for the topography to shift, for the questions to change. That usually involves a miracle – an event which could not have been predicted, who’s outcome could not be foreseen. An event which outstripped the capacity of liberal politics to contain the goings of things within the possible and the pragmatic. An event which changes the orientation, the relationship network between other events – literally changing the meaning of normal, everyday happenings. Miracles can’t be expected, but they can be demanded. They can’t be produced, like a house, but they can be instigated, like an earthquake.
Love is not an inter subjective relationship, at least not fundamentally. It is a relation, perhaps all relations, to the impossible, or to the miraculous. When you love another person, you are not interested very much in what they are right now so much as all the possibility you see in them – ideally you see as a futural projection all the positive possibilities that they could become, and they see the same in you, and being together helps you carry out those plans in ways you couldn’t have alone – without the love. When you love a revolution you don’t love the existing revolutionary institutions (you may hate them, in fact), you love what it demands, you love the impossible transformation which it insists is possible.
There would be something illiberal about revolution, and indeed there can be, because love is not a universalizing force. Love is evil, because it picks out the loved from the not-loved. It takes sides with one against another, sometimes implicitly. It says “this is the place we will change, and this is the new topography which we will force onto it”. Revolutionary love doesn’t care if it isn’t “nice”, if the 1% of excluded and their voices not heard. It doesn’t care even if some minority is not liberated by the revolution – not all aspects of oppression can be resolved in one struggle.
Revolutions can, for example, be extremely illiberal if they take place in the context of colonization – if your alternative is being occupied by a foreign power, even a very restrictive ideology, so long as its your ideology, is freedom compared to occupation. This, I think, is how we should conceive Islamic revolutions – Islam isn’t a particularly revolutionary religion, it’s not particularly good at instituting human freedom, but it’s a hell of a lot better than having your culture stifled by the imposition of a radically alien culture, of effective enslavement inside a foreign capitalists project, or, even worse – if he decides to settle and take your hand for himself. Against settler colonialism, anything counts as liberation.
An object of love, in revolutionary politics, is not optional. Yes you must love the revolution, and the revolution must transform inter personal relationships, giving them them a salience, a mythic quality. But to love the revolution it must exist, it must be a real revolt with an imperfect leadership. It must be a struggle of ideals in the flesh, of treachery as well as victory, of steadfastness and a tense unity. It must be, from the liberal perspective, a politics of no guarantees (who asks for guarantees while demanding the impossible?), and yet at the same time a politics of absolute right and the impossibility of compromise. And again, at the same time, it must be willing to compromise its own ideals to maintain its force, if necessary. It must have leaders, because someone must negotiate the end of the war and arrange either the terms of victory or the sellout.
The problem with post-material leftism, and the strange alliance between liberals and radicals in North American protest movements today, is that people have discovered the oppressive character of leadership, and therefore, the oppressive character of real existent revolutions. We don’t mobilize around a cause, a positive idea of how things could be arranged which, from within our current politics, is considered impossible. Instead, we mobilize around feelings, around a common sentiment of disillusionment and dissatisfaction with our democracies-cum-tyrannies. And we mobilize against specific forms of oppression that affect the most marginalized members of society, a virtuous cause perhaps, but not one that anyone for which but a few radicals will be willing to die on the barricades.
If you want to engage in revolutionary politics, you need a cause that can mobilize a large number of people to act in a highly motivated way. They have to love the cause. Which is hard today, because we’re a nation of cynics, and everything is “problematic”. On the other hand, if the movement moves towards liberal politics, then what motivation exists will further ebb – why should anyone have to work hard for transformation that is possible within existing institutions?