[written for 89.7 Eastside radio's Something Else program, produced by Lauren Caroll-Harris, can be listened to here.]
In August 2011 I was lying on a hotel bed in Nashville, Tennessee sending a desperate text message: Aaaarg, you who occupy me so! The response I’d be stinging for arrived the next morning in an email, its essence encapsulated in the line: Don’t occupy yourself with me! In emotionally vexed moments like this I always write to Fred, who was in Sydney, and he offered this consolation: When I was running in the beautiful spring evening I had the thought that one’s love is always in excess of oneself, and therefore accurately describable as something that one occupies or inhabits, rather than possesses.
When Occupy Wall Street began in September 2011 I felt it as a set of talismanic co-incidences projecting directly onto a longing now dislocated back to Sydney. And so in October, when Occupy Sydney arrived, it was for me already conjugated by love in an uncanny and narcissistic manner. Compared to collective global struggles, the banality of my romantic ego seems irrelevant, offensive even, the tedium of a private privilege that has nothing else to do except gratify its infatuations. I’m reminded of what Jenny Marx thought upon first encountering the Parisian bourgeoisie when her and Karl first moved to the city in 1843: it was if these upper classes had nothing to think about but love.
To be sure, my particular love woes are utterly insignificant, but that doesn’t make the question of love insignificant to politics. One of the things Occupy taught me was that I can’t dissociate my politics from my love. Although I believe both commitments to be sincere, I cannot honestly distinguish the desire to Occupy as a political commitment from the desire to become otherwise occupied by love. I’ve come to think that love is at the centre of any real politics, and that true politics can never completely distinguish between nor absolutely align its commitment to others and its commitment to who it loves. When private love is staged directly in relation to a political movement we are compelled to ask a significant question: how do we invent systems that extend love’s generosity beyond the limits of the people we love?
Our love, in the sense of saying to someone I love you, is a love that is privileged and private, something reserved for the few, and the infinite generosity of our love is exclusive, it’s only for them. This private and exclusive privilege of love explicitly contradicts a politics that is public and inclusive and underprivileged. Here I think about the love my parents have for me, a private, exclusive and privileged love in which I have been provided with endless opportunity. And I think the same when I look at my nephew, how he must think that the entire world exists for him to extract maximum benefit from it. But of course, like most families, my family are inclusive and extensive in their generosity to their friends and to my friends. And this is the defining attribute of exclusive love, if you find yourself inside the privilege then it’s pure and open generosity. But everything turns on this interior if. The purist experience of communism I’ve had has been in the bosom of privilege provisioned by capitalism. My life could reasonably be described as a mobile commune of fun subsidised by capital.
I saw a sticker on a car recently that put it nicely: Fuck your family. This is a far more political statement than any sticker that garishly announces its politics, because it scandalises the sacred cow of political discourse, that thing which everyone apparently agrees upon: that one’s family is the most important thing in all the cosmos. That as an individual you can and must do everything for your family, and that doing what must be done for them, no matter what, is justified. And as a corollary of that, what society must do is support families by either helping them out or getting out of their way as they express their natural and inalienable and incontestable rights to be just what they are. A brief encounter with political discourse would leave you with the impression that this thing called society has changed its name to economy and that this entity is made up of a conglomeration of working families. If you drink enough of this diet-discourse you might conveniently forget that global financial capitalism was the controlling agent. I would like to propose a sibling car sticker to Fuck your family, which says: Fuck your Love. Fuck, that most malleable of words, would be a metonym for politics, and could effectively translate as: Politicise your Love. Or again: Politicise Love.
The problem of privileged love is, of course, internal to capitalism, and capitalism is that system which perfects the art of love for the few at the expense of the many. Those strange medieval and metaphysical creatures known as corporations are the exemplary models of this art of inequality. But it’s important to remember that love’s privileging is not exclusive to capitalism, it existed long before it and will survive it. Against the cynicism that is so easy to mobilize I find myself wanting to repeat over and over this optimistic yet pragmatic and true statement: Love precedes capitalism and will survive it.
We perhaps find ourselves wishing that we could either sever or align love and politics. That is to say, we wish we could sever the relationship between exclusive love and the exploitation of others, and we wish we could align our love to include the excluded and exploited. This, we might hope, would resolve the contradiction. But the presence of contradiction is absolutely crucial and this resolution is in fact impossible. Contradiction, like love, is a sure sign that politics is truly present. Remember how after the Berlin Wall fell they said, market capitalism has prevailed, there are no longer any systemic contradictions, there will be one system to rule them all and it will contain and resolve all its contradictions. This is the end of politics, they said. Of course, now they admit they were wrong. The question is, therefore, not about the resolution of contradiction but rather the full articulation of contradictions so that the anarchic principle at the heart of democracy may express itself, and that this expression would become the polis. This would not be the democracy we know but would be another democracy, the democracy to come, one perhaps closer to the political model Occupy was experimenting with.
But, of course, you can’t really love everyone. I was once in love with someone who tried to live the infinite extension of love. It was intoxicating, the richest kind of social giving, but it was deeply self-destructive. They spoke about how it obliterated their person-hood, and it was a big part of our unravelling. So there is and there must be a limit to your love. Yet there is in the experience of love a movement that absolutely exceeds oneself, as Fred said, one’s love is always in excess of oneself. We are never more threatening to our limitations than when moved by love, and the threat, which is also a promise, is one of global transformation. It’s this transformative affect of love’s movement that I want to extract and place at the centre of my concept of political love. If you are falling in love, or your love is breaking apart, the deepest sense of your self-organisation is threatened with total transformation. You will be someone different after this. When my one significant experience of love was breaking, I felt a level of self-exposure that was in fact a death experience. In the most painful way I understood Rimbaud’s famous line: Je est une Autre // I is an other. Later, having come to terms with the fact that love’s apocalypse is never the absolute death it initially seems, we said of our love that we had given each other the gift of our adult selves. The long experience was utterly transformative.
I speak about love as though it were one’s own, but we are never the origin of our love. Love’s movement always comes from outside ourselves and for this reason is a divine force. Love itself is not, as in Greek mythology, a god per se, a god who might seek praise in return for good favour, but is rather a spirit who gifts to mortal life the apex of its experience. Although peerless, the gift that is given is not Love itself because Love itself is impersonal and cannot be given to our experience. Yet the gift remains singular. Put in terms of mythology: think of Cupid, the Roman god. Cupid does not give himself to us but rather shoots an arrow at us, and in loosing his bow he initiates an unparalleled motion from the universal to the singular and from the singular to the universal. It is a shocking movement that comes from beyond us, pricks us, floods the nervous system, burning a passage through the body, firing the neurons, flushing bone on the way back to the skin, leaving us occupied, haunted and attached to its trajectory. What becomes our love is a sort of witness to the sense-experience of this movement that gives more pleasure than any other conceivable action, which is neither ours to refuse nor ours to own, precisely because it exceeds us. Its double movement shudders through the core of the creature at the same time as it retains its impersonal force, that which, owing to its premium intensity, is simultaneously the thing most personal to us yet does not belong to us at all. This then is Love’s paradox, it’s both totally narcissistic and absolutely selfless.
Love shares the following quality with those brave and silly souls who threw themselves into Occupy Sydney: it is something most personal to us yet it does not belong to us at all. You cannot own a movement, even if you happen to be at its centre. Love and Occupy also share the character of being an infinite and impossible demand. One morning down in Martin Place a lady walking past said to someone I’d like to support you but I don’t know what it’s for. This was the criticism repeated ceaselessly: you don’t have any concrete demands. The demand for a demand is what’s expected in return for tolerating protest. Tell us what you want and we will say no and then you will go away. But Occupy, like the declaration of love, is not a protest with a time limit, it’s an occupation with no time limit. You don’t say to your lover, I love you until I get what I demand, you say I love you and the declaration is infinite and also impossible. You cannot guarantee this declaration I love you, but without this declaration, there can be no love. We do not make the declaration to Occupy because we can guarantee that things will change, and in this sense, revolution is like an object of infatuation, you will never have known if the revolution was real until afterwards, perhaps never. But certainly, there will be no revolution without this declaration.
In the face of love’s transformation we are unsure of ourselves, cautious and self-protective: am I really in love, or is this just a phase of infatuation? Perhaps we never distinguish our true love from our delusions, but for the transformation to take place we must embody the possibility that is given in the promise. Occupy, also, can never know if its momentum is or has been truly transformational, its politics is prefigurative, it tries to embody the kind of change it wants to see in the world rather than politely request change to the powers that be. This prefiguration takes the form of a horizontal structural, an artifice that is an experiment in extending love’s generosity beyond the limits of the people and things that we love.
The anti-hierarchy of the general assembly is relentlessly inclusive and requires a forgotten patience in a world where we have outsourced difficult collective decisions to representatives. The Occupy process is difficult, inefficient, tiresome, plodding and messy. But the presence of mess, like contradiction, is a necessary condition of democracy. If your love is clean then it is short. The time of mess is essential. If there is no time for the people to decide then there is no democracy, as the people of Greece know: the slow time of democracy and the fast time of global financial capital are not compatible, in fact, directly at odds.
Needless to say, the slow time of direct democracy is a tough love. Love, I hope you understand, is not soft, although it contains softness. It is not effusive, unifying and orgiastic. The intimacy of a hug is important, but it will not be by hugging everyone that we tame global capitalism. The love I mean is difficult, severe and rigorous. It is vehement, even violent. It comes at great cost, a cost that I for one have never had the courage to pay. I think once again of Jenny Marx. She who was a Baroness and fell in love with the son of a Jew, and who’s love lived on the promise of a book, a book that would catalyse and frame the revolution. This book missed its revolution by nearly two decades and it was not in the end the revolution that was promised. She knew what it was to live a life of political love. Her life was giving extensively at the expense of her self, a life of exile, poverty and lost children. Her love was a faith bound to a man who despite being right in the centre of the struggles of his time, was always running hopelessly behind. Yet even when revolution was a dim prospect and she had pawned all her clothes, the Baroness von Westphalen welcomed every fellow exile into their home. The Marx home was a place where the generosity of love always extended beyond the limits of the family.