For many of us, 2020 has forced us to face conflicting values. We want to support local businesses, but are uncertain about our own financial futures. We want to attend to loved ones, but we’re struggling to manage ourselves. We want to reduce our carbon footprint and consumption, but pandemic fears force other choices. We want justice for Black lives, but many won’t feel secure without police. We’re facing the fact more than ever that life is full of irresolvable paradoxes, contradictions, and trade-offs.
“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance,” said Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School. Amidst the uncertainty that these system shocks have aroused, there are opportunities to construct new, better modes of living. My wish is for society to embrace an Ethic of Love.
I have been thinking a lot about Love this year. Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and bell hooks’s All About Love were both incredibly helpful for clarifying my thinking. Both view Love not as an affect that one is occasionally subject to, the commonplace view, but as a deliberate activity that one decides to commit to. For Fromm, Love is an art form that requires discipline, concentration, practice. One who only has love for their romantic partner is not truly Loving. hooks elaborates:
When we see love as the will to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth,… the foundation of all love in our life is the same. There is no special love exclusively reserved for romantic partners. Genuine love is the foundation of our engagement with ourselves, with family, with friends, with partners, with everyone we choose to love. While we will necessarily behave differently depending on the nature of a relationship, or have varying degrees of commitment, the values that inform our behavior, when rooted in a love ethic, are always the same for any interaction.
(I can’t forget to Love myself.)
I see revolutionary potential in this reconstruction of Love. The problem with our commonplace view of love is that it denies us agency, thereby absolving us from responsibility and excusing our selfish instincts. Fromm and hooks both identify how this view arises naturally out of capitalism. Fromm:
In order to prove that capitalism corresponded to the natural seeds of man, one had to show that man was by nature competitive and full of mutual hostility.
But I reject this worldview. Humans are not by nature exclusively competitive and hostile: “Even in difficult situations, the desire for cooperation would appear to often be nascent and the evidence suggests that we are naturals at it, given the opportunity.” In the real-life version of Lord of the Flies, a group of six shipwrecked boys took care of each other for 15 months, setting up a commune and caring for one when he broke his leg. In a look at crises, “studies show that people tend to react in highly social ways after a catastrophe…. the masses do not panic in disasters… Elites, who have the most to lose in the case of disruption, do.”
Even the Darwinian premise of competition for resources leading to survival of the fittest is being challenged. If it were true, that would lead to the extinction of ancestor species, yet we see multiple ‘competing’ species occupy the same ecological niche everywhere.
When the US awoke to the reality of the pandemic, mutual aid networks sprouted immediately. When tragedy strikes, strangers reliably fund GoFundMe campaigns. There are things in life more urgent and valuable than money and power.
Power. hooks and Fromm both place power in opposition to Love. I have seen so many people who view life as about winning while others lose. And I wonder what it must be like to live such that every kindness has a price, and every attachment is conditional. In Der Ring des Nibelungen, the dwarf Alberich renounces love in order to fashion a ring granting absolute power from the Rhinemaidens’ gold. Wagner recognized the same opposition.
Sheltered in place, a sorrowful leitmotif frequently escaped my lips. It comes to mind often when I fear for the future. It first arises when the Valkyrie Brünnhilde announces to the hero Siegmund his impending death. She offers him eternal comfort in Valhalla. But since his lover cannot join, he refuses. He chooses love. This leitmotif, annunciation of death, is composed of the leitmotifs for grief, fate, and the curse of the ring (i.e. power). He chooses love and never touches or even hears of the ring, and yet falls victim anyway. After a short life, constructed for him to fill a specific role, he is sentenced without his knowledge to die for transgressions he was not equipped to avoid, all because of the greed and dealings of those with power. It’s an ancient Greek sort of tragedy.
The subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 exposed the precarity of our financial system. The risks of complex instruments like mortgage-backed securities were calculated, and they were priced accordingly. The tragically incorrect assumption was that one loan’s risk of failure was independent of the failure of another. Furthermore, financial firms’ leverage was extremely high to amplify gains. This also meant they had very thin tolerance for equally amplified losses. So once MBSs started to falter, losses tipped into defaults which cascaded and the whole interconnected network of money collapsed. The greed and dealings of the moneyed class unleashed misery upon all. Wagner fated the greedy gods to twilight. There was no bankerdämmerung on Wall Street.
I wonder if there’s a labor analogue today. Firms have demanded more and more productivity from workers for decades without concomitant increases in pay. The costs of housing, healthcare, education continue rising far faster than inflation, forcing individuals to assume ever more risk, often in the form of debt, to get by. Leveraging labor in this way has led to record profits for corporations, but it leaves people with scant ability to tolerate the loss of income. Record numbers have no savings to lean on in case of emergency. Many individuals further leverage themselves by hiring out things like childcare, cleaning, and shopping.
Labor is also highly connected. We are a networked society and depend on each other for goods and services. When one group of people faces mass unemployment, evictions, bankruptcies, the rest have to adjust to the loss of what they used to offer. Not everyone can adjust without incurring their own losses of time and money, so that may trigger more unemployment, evictions, bankruptcies. This failure could cascade.
Thus far, government intervention kept enough money in enough people’s pockets to prevent a full collapse of labor. But things aren’t rosy. Unemployment remains high, disproportionately affecting minoritized populations, and weekly claims have recently increased. Further stimulus does not appear forthcoming, so the final straws may yet settle on workers’ backs.
But this model is bleak. Why must we rely on the market economy for all our needs? There are other assets in life than financial ones. Capitalism isn’t going away, but what if we learned to properly value the people in our lives? What if our measure of success came not from a balance sheet, but from the quality of our relationships? When things get hard, why must we endure the hardship on our own? Why can’t we cooperate? Why can’t we engage one another with an Ethic of Love?
This is the future I wish for. One in which cooperation is expected and competition is friendly. Where we foster others rather than dominate them. This would be the tide that actually lifts all boats. Sociopaths and psychopaths would continue to exist, of course, but they wouldn’t be rewarded with power as they are now.
Idealistic? Certainly. Life is full of irresolvable paradoxes, contradictions, and trade-offs. Perfection is an incoherent notion. We’ll lose ourselves if we try too hard to Love too broadly. But even when the destination doesn’t exist, the journey itself can mean everything. If enough of us learn to Love just a little better, we might change the world.