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On Love and Politics

The following remarks on love and politics were first delivered at a welcome symposium for all first-year humanities and social science students in the Great Hall, the University of Sydney, 27th February 2014:

Good morning and a warm welcome to the University of Sydney.

I was asked by our Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to speak for a few minutes on the proverbial subject of love, and so I thought I’d begin with a surprise thunderbolt: love is a political matter. Yes, your ears heard correctly: not a poetical or pontifical but a political matter.

The p-word is not much in fashion these days, and to link it to love seems odd, if only because love is born of comfort and contentment. If we’re born lucky, love is the cradle of our earliest years. Love is a father watching over a sleeping child; his reassuring voice; the firm clasp of his outstretched hand. Later, love is his golden advice and heart-felt offers of material help. Love is a mother’s caress. It is her gently beating heart; her warm body; her consoling embrace, her willingness to drop everything, and to go the extra mile. Love is hunger and milk; desire and pleasure mixed together. Love is the utterly selfless willingness of parents to teach their children, to nurture their self-confidence, to encourage them to do astonishing things, like love another living being.

We learn later in life that love is bound up with desire. Freud was unquestionably right about that. Hence the wisdom that love is blind. Love begins with passionate love; friendship and other attachments, however heart-felt they are, are never quite the same. They rarely become love. When people softly say wo ai ni (try it in Mandarin!), the words usually throb with excitement. Love is bodily: when we’re in love, we kiss the ground our lover’s feet kiss. Love is delicious torment: we can’t bear to be apart from our lover. We crave their touch, their smell, the twinkle of their eyes, their lips. Speakers of Spanish say: te quiero. I love you means I want you.

You don’t need a professor dressed in a multi-coloured gown and hood to tell you just how explosive is the mix of desire and love for another. True lovers make love as if they’re on the endangered species list. Love (eros) is longing. It breeds sighs. It burns like fuel in a furnace. Love is a fit of apoplexy, a touch of madness. Love’s a sort of honey-sweet torment. It tempts us to pluck petals in hope, or to sing [professor attempts to croon] sentimental songs such as: ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do! I’m half crazy all for the love of you!’

Yes, tone deafness is a curse, so here’s a compensating thought: we live in an age when the word love is everywhere, over-used, and mis-used. We say we love Diet Coke, driving BMWs. We love the beach, cricket, Tim Tams, Little Creatures, sushi or dumplings. Don’t forget One Direction. In one click, you’ll discover dating sites like LoveShack.org that promise dating without love, sexual pleasure without falling in love, Love-Lite we could call it. But love isn’t consumption, or disposable love. Love certainly isn’t narcissism; it is its remedy.

Narcissism, self-love, is all around us: we star in our very own selfies and, with a mouse click, there we are, fully uploaded, visible, famous, the centre of attraction, surrounded by others in a hall of flattering mirrors. That’s partly why love comes gendered, why so many men confuse orgasm with love, and why, it’s said by women I know, men rarely fall in love because too many of them fall asleep first.

The fact that love isn’t self-love, or even (as Madame de Staël once put it) self-love times two, brings us to politics. Beginning with a chance encounter, love is passionate interaction with another. It is relational, and inherent in the relationship there’s power, and the possibility of mutual empowerment, and (when love fades) dis-empowerment. Love is everything from deciding one’s sexuality to choosing what shoes to wear, whether to live together or not, who is cooking dinner and how to make plans for this coming weekend. Love is forging agreements, settling disputes, fairly, minus the poison of resentment, or manipulation. Love isn’t a matter for professionals. It’s the practical art of nurturing equality with another.

Money can’t buy love. Strictly speaking, you can’t love your own nation. Albert Camus had a point: nations are far too complex to be loved in their entirety, so that in the case of this fair land adoring our nation would involve loving (say) Captain Bligh and those white colonists who committed genocide in Van Diemen’s Land, or Gina Rinehart, Craig Thompson and Pauline Hanson (I better not go on). Looks alone don’t breed love. Love doesn’t automatically find a way. It can’t be pre-programmed. Love is a close-to-the-body way of deciding with another, fairly and equally, who gets when, when and how. Love is a democratic adventure. By this I mean that love humbles. It can’t be commanded, and for that reason it rarely survives imperiousness. Love makes us equals. Some philosophers and political writers (Henri Bergson and Jacques Maritain, for instance) have said that love, which honours dignity, neighbourliness and mutual respect, is the ‘motive power’ of democracy. The proverbs teach us: Love can’t be compelled. Love laughs at locksmiths. It softens hearts. ‘Die Liebe herrscht nicht; aber sie bildet, und das ist mehr’, wrote Goethe. Love doesn’t dominate; it cultivates, and more. The Qur'an speaks of purification through love. Love can’t survive violence, or bossing and bullying. An originally German proverb says it all well: love is above King or Kaiser, lord or laws.

But love is for that reason plain hard work. Yes, it puts a spring in our steps; the jouissance of love disrupts the humdrum normality of our lives. Love is thrilling, as Aristophanes emphasised in Plato’s Symposium, but as Socrates reminded us (in the same work) love also requires day and night inventiveness, patience, thoughtfulness, trust, correcting missteps, resilience. Learning to say sorry is imperative. The course of true love never did run smooth (Shakespeare tells us in A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream), and that’s why the utter magic of our first puppy love stems from our ignorance that it can all end badly. Love is uncertainty. It’s a bumpy road, it’s taking risks, stretching ourselves with others, a process of give-and-take. Love is potential failure and (when it slips through our fingers) love is dealing with hurt, soothing remorse, coping with injured selves.

So why bother with love if it can damage our sense of self and break apart our hearts? There’s a very short and snappy answer: to lose in love is the next best thing to succeeding, and success in love, which requires lovers to become political, and to act democratically, is bliss on earth. If you haven’t already, try it some time. You might just see what I mean.

Edward Snowden and the Right of Public Refuge

Public rally in support of Edward Snowden, Garden Road, Hong Kong, June 2013 flickr/See-ming Lee

Along with contributions by Ulrich Beck, Bruno Latour and Lawrence Lessig, the following short statement is shortly to be published in Politiken, the largest-circulation daily newspaper in Denmark:

With a political noose tightening around his neck, Edward Snowden’s recent written testimony before the European Parliament bravely exposes the follies of ‘dragnet surveillance’ and makes powerfully clear the need for a new global agreement in support of the democratic rights of citizens, wherever they live on our planet. His measured words prompt a practical utopian proposal: Citizens of all countries, unite! Demand the right to defy the convenience of spies, their duty to delete stolen files, and the personal and group right to be different. Call on your governments to drop criminal charges, if any, against Edward Snowden and his heralds, including brave Julian Assange. Doubt GCHQ talk of ‘damaging public debate’. Call on those who govern your cities to make them safe havens. Demand that they become places of refuge where the friends of public openness are granted safe passage, so that they may hold their heads high, freed from threats of murder and prison, and the triple curse of fear, personal depression and the shame of being compulsorily forgotten.

Democracy in Times of Crisis

With talk of democracy in crisis plentiful, especially in Europe, a smart assessment of how well democracies have fared during past crises is badly needed. This is what David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap offers – with decidedly mixed results. Runciman is a good writer and a brave pioneer. Little has been published on the subject and (as I realised when attempting something similar in The Life and Death of Democracy) it’s no easy task to compare large numbers of cases from different time periods and come up with a convincing picture of why democracies succeed or fail.

The picture he sketches is agreeably bold: during the past century, from Woodrow Wilson’s failure to promote democracy after the First World War to the near-collapse of the banking system in 2008, democracies have been littered with confusion, foolish brinkmanship and delayed bounce-back. They’re poor at anticipating crises; they take forever to read writings on the wall; they’re easily distracted by frivolous media events and fake crises; and they are sedated by their track record of success (that’s the confidence trap). Burdened by ‘elections and fickle public opinion and constitutional proprieties’, democracies typically lack a sense of urgency or proportion. They muddle their way into crises triggered by such anti-democratic forces as war and market failure. Then they twiddle their thumbs, usually for so long that finally they’re forced to spring into action. The picture of democracies during crisis periods ‘is not pretty, and it creates a pervasive feeling of disappointment’.

Muddling through is indeed what democracies do best, but what’s striking is the way Runciman puts two bob each way on democracy. The resilience of democracies in handling crises leads him to question the ‘perennial democratic appetite to hear the worst of itself’. In sticky situations, democracies typically outperform ‘autocracies’ (their handling of emergencies is left largely undiscussed, which is a fat flaw in the whole argument). Yet democracies, he says, are crippled by their habit of procrastination, and for that they earn his rebuke. ‘Democracies survive their mistakes,’ he writes. ‘So the mistakes keep coming.’

Runciman is a reluctant democrat whose Law of Dithering Democracy (let’s call it) has roots deeper than the handful of carefully chosen historical examples he uses to support his case. It’s telling that flesh-and-blood citizens, social movements, power-monitoring bodies and other forces of civil society go missing in this book. Their democratic ‘appetite for exposure and confrontation’ is dismissed as ‘adolescent churlishness’. Harsh words, but they help to explain why Runciman thinks crises are best handled by prudent political elites gripped by no-nonsense gravitas and a willingness to act swiftly and decisively. It’s Max Weber’s old-fashioned elitist view of politics, and it’s why Runciman, an Old Etonian, admires leaders who command respect by their actions: political animals strong on ‘restraint, discipline, and coordinated action’; canny characters with razor-sharp wits; commanders who are cucumber-cool under pressure, who know how to spot a crisis and aren’t shy of banging heads and stepping on people to survive the moment of reckoning.

None of this (look at the cases of Xi Jinping or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) has much to do with democracy, but it’s why Runciman’s secret attachment to elite politics feeds his general reticence about democracy, understood as the public scrutiny and chastening of arrogant power. It’s also why he ignores the coming of monitory forms of democracy. Since 1945, many people have come to think, for good reasons, that democracies should not indulge strong-armed leaders, even when they’ve been elected by a majority of voters. New early-warning devices for detecting and democratically handling crisis situations (from Greenpeace and WikiLeaks to the Saskatchewan Emergency Planning Act) are now firmly on the political agenda. In this book, unfortunately, they don’t rate a mention. Runciman ignores the major paradigm change that’s going on in the real world of democracy. As the range and number of potential global catastrophes grow, we see the coming of many new democratic mechanisms that are our best hope of equitably handling future crises.

Hope isn’t among Runciman’s favourite words. Buried in his lines is an odd metaphysics: the belief, traceable to the ancient Greek historian Polybius, that decline and decay are intrinsic to political life. It’s no accident that Runciman never defines what exactly he means by the word ‘progress’, even though it’s used constantly to measure the performance of democracies under pressure. ‘The ongoing success of democracy creates the conditions for repeated failures, just as repeated failures are a precondition for its ongoing success.’ It’s Samuel Beckett – ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ – minus the gallows humour. The curse of the human condition, or so Runciman thinks, is that nothing ever remains the same or gets better. The enfranchisement of women and the defeat of apartheid (say) are gains that seem to him uninteresting. They’re trumped by the imperious way the unexpected pokes its nose into settled ways of doing things. This sometimes triggers crises whose resolution prepares the way for the next surprise, and the next crisis.

The metaphysics here gets in the way of a much richer, more convincing treatment of democracy and crisis. Democracy is never properly defined. It’s the same for the originally Greek term crisis (κρίσις), today much overused and still burdened with connotations of salvation or damnation. Crises are presumed to have a self-evident quality. They never do; their definition and unfolding are always a political matter. The fact that democracies are sometimes slow off the mark when faced with political difficulties is attributed to the ‘spirit’ of democracy itself; forces such as organised lobbying, threats of capital disinvestment and big-money advertising play no systematic role in Runciman’s explanation.

The publisher meanwhile trumpets this book as a ‘global’ history, but it’s no such thing. It’s principally about the United States, the third democratic empire in the history of democracy (Athens and revolutionary France came before). The special constraints posed by its imperial status, even its performance when intervening in far-distant humanitarian crises, are passed over in silence. Striking, too, is the book’s neglect of a large crop of democracies (Weimar Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, for instance) that committed democide during the fateful 1920s and 1930s. How come these democracies didn’t muddle through successfully? Runciman doesn’t say. The book is equally neglectful of cases – Indonesia springs to mind – where democracy was born, and succeeded, because it was the only way of resolving a deep-seated crisis. The list of missing items is long, which goes to show in these darkening times how badly we still need a good book on democracy and crisis.