A short thought on love and on the Occupy movement

Published online 27 October 2011.

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” — Jimi Hendrix

Love, like everything else human, exists in time and space, and is thus open to history.  Now, historians have focused upon production and physical force as models for human relations, and so in historians’ eyes love has been tied to other, more identifiable human institutions.  Stephanie Coontz’ Marriage, A History, for instance, discusses how marriage has been infiltrated by love, after the Enlightenment and Romanticism (Coontz mentions the “late eighteenth century”) changed the cultures of the West, and there are doubtless a number of histories contributing to the Wikipedia entry on the history of human sexuality.  The most famous of these, Michel Foucault’s multipart History of Sexuality, ties sexuality to discipline and to self-discipline.

The question about love, then, is not directly about some utopian option of a society based directly on love.  For now at least, the question about love is one of which social institutions are open to love as a directing force in any particular place and time and era of historical development.  Marriage, for instance, is open to love, but marriages do not always contain love; this is why the divorce rate is so high.  Thus marriage cannot be equated to love, but is potentially a place in which love can be found.  Social institutions direct our behavior; but no social institution is equal to love, which is a state of human being.

With the Occupy movement we can see the beginnings of a new society, in which social change can result as the confluence of a number of people who make political alliances and friendships with each other under the banner of “we are the 99%.”  Perhaps, then, we could see the Occupy movement as a place in which production and power, the main foci of history, can be made to open themselves to love.

I can see that we will need a definition of love to begin with.  Erich Fromm’s old (1956) tome, “The Art of Loving,” suggests one: “love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love.” (p. 24).  The Occupy movement is going to need love if it is to grow — otherwise it will meet the expectations of the legislators, and die in the wake of its persecution while the 1% continue to occupy all facets of government.  If we continue to be in the disorganized state which I observed in part on Tuesday, we’ll die as a movement.

Che Guevara famously said that ““the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love,” but revolutions have always been about power and production, and have typically ended, in the short or the long run, in capitulations to capitalism, which is about capital accumulation and the desire for possession.  Capitalists can really only love as a hobby; the back-scratching among the 1% which typically counts as policy these days is not love.  Occupy is our thousandth chance to change all that.

I do want to say something here about love and the Occupy movement.  But I would first like to take a gander at friendship, as a vehicle for love.

The discussion of social institutions is a discussion about ordinary relationships between people, of which love is not one.  Ordinary relationships are things such as solidarity, or friendship.  They form easily — witness any enormous march and rally as is currently permitted upon occasion in any of America’s major cities.

One of the most profound books of the last decade was Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year, in which Professor of Anthropology Cathy Small (“Rebekah Nathan”‘s real name) goes undercover in her own university, registers as a frosh, and takes on life in a dormitory and a full schedule of classes.  My Freshman Year isn’t a particularly great book — its main effect is comprised of the force with which it depicts the social life of an otherwise conformist era.

One of Nathan’s most penetrating observations is that international students look at American friendships with a certain sort of amazement.  International students are typically pleasantly surprised at how well American students will form friendships, but then later disappointed at the empty character of what counts as friendship among Americans.

A French student responded quickly to my query about friends.  “Sure I have friends.  It’s so easy to meet people here, to make friends.”  Then she added: “Well, not really friends.  That’s the thing.  Friendship is very surface-defined here.  It is easy to get to know people, but the friendship is superficial.  We wouldn’t even call it friendship.  In France, when you’re someone’s friend, you’re their friend for life.” (p. 75)

Thus the anthropologist, who claims to be an expert in “looking outside” her culture, discovers people who are already in the everyday practice of adopting such a perspective.  Those people can see that American culture, at least in the college context, is largely friendless.  The anthropologist, however, probes further in search of a cause, a larger community in which people can be said to have explanations for their behaviors.

In other passages of My Freshman Year, “Rebekah Nathan” reveals that community among the participants in the university under study is composed of “Ego-Centered Networks,” (p. 55) in which personal networks of friends were established early on out of circumstance, were based on “individualism, choice, and materialism” (p. 54), and which never really changed.  The college students of My Freshman Year, then, are lost in the supermarket.

Erich Fromm also recognized modern capitalist society, of which American society has been the quintessential example, as lost in the supermarket:

In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market. (pp. 3-4)

This, then, is a pivotal topic for the Occupy movement: how to sustain friendship, solidarity, and other social relationships which might, just might, be open to love, from within a society which is essentially lost in the supermarket.  What is the alternative?  How long does the solidarity of the Occupy movement last before it is “sold out” or otherwise dissipated — I get a job, you commit suicide, the other one goes into prostitution, the funds dry up, the cops are too brutal, living outdoors becomes too painful, the Health Department dries up our food supply, and so on?  Sure, there will need to be some genuine effort needed to put the Occupy movement on a footing as a society in its own right, to create a new society in which (to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek) we are no longer in “the system where main street cannot function without Wall street“.  And there will need to be a much larger Occupy movement than the one we currently have; we will not be able to do it with the forces we have, much as they might be growing at the current moment.

I can’t see how it’s all going to happen without the spread of some sort of revolutionary love.  And to make that happen, we will need to devise social structures which are open to love.  It won’t be easy.  As Fromm suggests:

… satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbor, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline.  In a culture in which these qualities are rare, the attainment of the capacity to love must remain a rare achievement.  Or — anyone can ask himself how many truly loving persons he has known. (p. vii)


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