Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society

Politics of Love

Dr Rebecca Hewer explores issues surrounding love, self and society.

On a particularly blustery day in December 2018, I made my way through the cobbled streets of Oxford, to attend a conference on the ‘Politics of Love’. The conference, organised by Max Harris and Philip McKibbin, brought together a diverse array of activists and academics to discuss the political potential of everyday virtues like kindness, compassion and love.  Harris and McKibbin – both of whom hail from New Zealand and both of whom express an interest in Maori conceptions of love – feel that a well-articulated and avowedly practiced politics of love might provide a fruitful way to counter both the creeping scourge of neoliberalism and the vitriolic ascendency of the so-called ‘alt-right’. In empanelling the conference, they sought to provide a conducive space for the creative and dynamic exploration of what such a politics could, or should, be.

Beneath the wood-panelled auspices of All Souls College, speakers from across the world spoke about ‘love’ by reference to a range of issues, including prisons, pedagogy, environmentalism, solidarity, and the everyday practice of care. They highlighted the myriad ways love could be framed and instrumentalised; presenting love as an affect, a stance, an approach, an act, an ethic, and a lens. Love was, in turn, associated with a range of other political projects, such as de-colonization, non-violence, and egalitarianism. What became clear, early on, was that there were a plurality of possible narratives from which a politics of love could draw, and that whilst love was not a contested concept, per se, it nonetheless lacked immediate clarity. On reflection, that’s hardly surprising. As bell hooks suggests in her work, romantic notions of love frequently stress its ineffable character. Love is framed as pre- or post-verbal, an intangible sense of warmth and desire, potentially diminished by efforts to fully understand it. With that said, there were a number of key themes which arose throughout the course of the conference – themes which seemed to point to a shared understanding of love. I will briefly reflect on, and contribute to, those themes now.          

The Undervaluation of Love

There appeared to be a strong sense that love was an under-valued virtue within public and political spaces: framed primarily as a private or domestic force, too wishy-washy for meaningful consideration elsewhere. This despite the fact that love – in all its guises, including its lack - plays an integral role in most of our lives. Our affective relationships are, Kathleen Lynch posits, as important as our economic relationships with regard to the shape and liveability of our lives, but are, nonetheless, frequently ignored in progressive political thought. Some conference attendees suggested that this devaluation and relegation could be explained by reference to love’s traditional positioning as a ‘feminine virtue’. Love (particularly of the non-romantic persuasion) is devalued by its association with women, and women are devalued by their association with love. This observation echoes the work of feminist ethicists, who have long problematized the denigration of values predominantly associated with women and sought to reposition such values (which include compassion, dependency and care) as meaningful spaces from which moral deliberation and political activism can take place.

By this measure, foregrounding love within politics could work to redress gendered inequality – both insofar as the fates of love and women are intertwined (by their political, rather than ‘natural’, association), and insofar as such foregrounding would likely reframe love as a gender neutral affect/practice. With regard to the latter, love may be disproportionately associated with women, but there is no reason why it should continue to be. Indeed, gender associations of this kind perpetuate a raft of inequalities which hinder the flourishing of people across the gender spectrum.  

Moving Beyond the Self

Beyond this, multiple speakers suggested that a progressive politics should frame love as a force which emanates from the self but is orientated outwards, towards others and their surroundings. Love as an experience nurtured primarily to pleasure oneself is politically problematic. A politics of love should work to disrupt, rather than ingrain, neoliberal individualism, and should subsequently seek to place value on the immediate and distal other. Love as a force which moves out and away from the self, demands that we feel a sense of concern and moral obligation for all living things and the environments which sustain them. Beyond this love as a gaze orientated to the external should be a generative force. 

Particularly compelling, for me, was Lida Maxwell’s contention that love could be both world disclosing and world building. When we look at the world from a vantage point of love, Maxwell suggested, we expose ourselves to things which might otherwise remain hidden, and subsequently come to know the fragility, beauty, and worth of the other. This exposure subsequently compels us to produce and pursue new ways of living in, and organising, the world. This claim felt intuitive, insofar as it seemed to reflect the process of falling in, and acting upon, love. When we fall in love we see new avenues of existence: we make new families, new homes, and new traditions. A politics of love, then, could be both elucidating and transformative.

Building on this, a number of speakers expressed the belief that a politics of love should be premised on an understanding of love as a practice rather than a mere affect. There is a difference, Lynne Segal posited, between caring about and caring for someone (or something). A politics of love cannot be passive, but must rather compel action. In the immortal words of Massive Attack, ‘Love, love is a verb; love is a doing word’. Love, then, is a valuable gaze which looks beyond the self and to the other, allowing us to imagine and actively produce new worlds.

Building on a Love Which Already Exists

Finally, there was a strong sense that whilst a self-avowed politics of love might require some original theorising, any related movement should pay due regard to, and build upon, extant work. Many speakers reflected on how love underpinned, often implicitly, a range of current and historical social movements, as well as (often marginalised) cultural spaces. Relatedly, Kehinde Andrews’ reflected on how frequently anti-oppressive movements were characterised as peddling hate (e.g. feminism as man-hating) when, in truth, they were predicated on a deep sense of compassion and hope for the future. Equally compelling was Andrews’ suggestion that the solidarity which made progressive social movements possible could be understood as rooted in love. Solidarity, Andrews posits, is fundamentally premised on looking past one’s individualism, and seeing oneself as intrinsically embedded in socio-political and historic relationality. Ethnicity and gender become the bases for collective action only when we recognise our relationships to others, our shared histories and futures, and commit to acting on behalf of communities rather than in self-interest.

Building on this, Lynne Segal suggested that collective action was often characterised by joy and comradery, even when it sought to redress grave matters. This resonated with my experiences of protests and demonstrations, which have largely been characterised by humorous placards, silly songs, rhythmic drums and infectious laughter. Solidarity, then, can be conceived as formed through – and productive of – love and joy.

Love and Anger

Something not explicitly explored within the conference was the role of other forms of affect in politics: anger, sadness, frustration. What was curious, then, was how frequently speakers seemed to express anger and sadness and frustration. And rightly so. Numerous presenters discussed matters such as structural and interspecies violence, racism, inequality and colonialization. So whilst I entered with a concern that a politics of love might delegitimise feelings I believe to be entirely apposite in the face of grinding injustice, I left with my fears at least somewhat abated. A politics of love (if its potential proponents are anything to go by) will not be premised on an erasure of other forms of affect – but will recognise negative emotions as legitimate, seeking to validate and sooth their experience. And not through a process of self-care, but through a process of demanding that love be observed, valued, and practiced by those in positions of power. Love, then, becomes an evaluative criteria – a threshold which our political bodies must reach. That love and anger can exist in tandem is, again, intuitive. The love we live infrequently flattens out our rage – if anything it intensifies or amplifies anger, increasing its scope and its power, if only because we become angry on another person’s behalf.

Implications for Biomedicine, Health, Self and Society

Health and biomedicine are inherently political issues. This is perhaps most startlingly apparent when we acknowledge the systemic asymmetries in the distribution of good health and biomedical provision – both within the UK and globally. Questions of who is privileged and neglected, what is treated and cured, and which lines of inquiry are pursued and ignored, are all fundamentally political. By that measure, a politics of love could influence the way we think about health on an individual and structural level. Beyond this, notions of love and compassion undoubtedly have particular salience for a range of issues falling within the ambit of the Centre. To illustrate, Eva Kittay suggested that in foregrounding the role of biomedical advancements in medicine, we may forget the fundamental role love and kindness play in healthcare settings.

My own work considers embryo donations to health research, and what little literature exists on this topic suggests that donors frequently choose to donate because of a sense of compassion and obligation for human wellbeing en mass. This to me sounds like love, and has pushed me to query whether such love is (or should be) reciprocated, and if so, how. 


Dr Rebecca Hewer is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society.