On Politics and Love

by Gabriel Mizrahi on August 20, 2012

Alain de Botton, author of Essays In Love, on the relationship between totalitarian politics and romantic love:

“Politics seems an incongruous field to link to love, but can we not read, in the bloodstained histories of the French, Fascist, or Communist revolutions, something of the same coercive structure, the same impatience with diverging views fuelled by passionate ideals? Amorous politics begins its infamous history with the French Revolution, when it was first proposed (with all the choice of a rape) that the state would not just govern but also love its citizens, who would respond likewise or face the guillotine. The beginning of revolutions is psychologically strikingly akin to that of certain relationships: the stress on unity, the sense of omnipotence, the desire to eliminate secrets (with the fear of the opposite soon leading to lover’s paranoia and the creation of a secret police).

But if the beginnings of love and amorous politics are equally rosy, then the ends are often equally bloody. We’re familiar with the political love that ends in tyranny, where a ruler’s firm conviction that he has the true interests of his nation at heart ends up lending him the confidence to murder without qualms (and ‘for their own good’) all who disagree with him. Romantic lovers are similarly inclined to vent their frustration on dissenters and heretics …

Why could rulers not act politely towards their citizens, tolerating sandals, dissent, and divergence? The answer from liberal thinkers is that cordiality can arise only once rulers give up talk of governing for the love of their citizens, and concentrate instead on ensuring sensible, minimal governance. Liberal politics finds its greatest apologist in John Stuart Mill, who in 1859 published a classic defence of loveless liberalism, On Liberty, a ringing plea that citizens should be left alone by governments, however well meaning they were, and not be told how to lead their personal lives, what gods to worship or books to read. Mill argued that though kingdoms and tyrannies felt themselves entitled to hold ‘a deep interest in the whole bodily and mental discipline of every one of its citizens’, the modern state should as far as possible stand back and let people govern themselves. Like a harassed partner in a relationship who begs simply to be given space, Mill ventured:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it … The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized society against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

The wisdom of Mill’s thesis is such that one might want to see it applied in relationships as much as to governments. However, on reflection, applied to the former, it seems to lose much of its appeal. It evokes certain marriages, where love as evaporated long ago, where couples sleep in separate bedrooms, exchanging the occasional word when they meet in the kitchen before work, where both partners have long ago given

up hope of mutual understanding, settling instead for a tepid friendship based on controlled misunderstanding, politeness while they get through the evening’s shepherd’s pie, 3 a.m. bitterness at the emotional failure that surrounds them …

If my relationship with Chloe never reached the levels of the Terror, it was perhaps because she and I were able to temper the choice between love and liberalism with an ingredient that too few relationships and even fewer amorous politicians (Lenin, Pol Pot, Robespierre) have ever possessed, an ingredient that might just (were there enough of it to go around) save both states and couples from intolerance: a sense of humor.

It seems significant that revolutionaries share with lovers a tendency towards terrifying earnestness. It is as hard to imagine cracking a joke with Stalin as with Young Werther. Both of them seem desperately, though differently, intense. With the inability to laugh comes an inability to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in every society and relationship, the multiplicity and clash of desires, the need to accept that one’s partner will never learn how to park a car, or wash out a bath or give up a taste for Joni Mitchell — but that one cares for them rather a lot nevertheless …

It may be a sign that two people have stopped loving one another (or at least stopped wishing to make the effort that constitutes ninety per cent of love) when they are no longer able to spin differences into jokes. Humour lined the walls of irritation between our ideals and the reality: behind every joke, there was a warming of difference, of disappointment even, but it was a difference that had been defused — and could therefore be passed over without the need for a pogrom.”


Photo Credit: Eric Testroete

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