We have all seen the frightening resurgence of a hateful right wing emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, culminating most dramatically and terribly in the Charlottesville rally attended by the KKK, neo-Nazis, other white supremacists, and other elements of the so-called alt right. We all remember the savage murder of Heather Heyer, the young activist who lost her life when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of protesters. And we have responded with militancy and counter-protest, yes, but also with outpourings of love: vigils for Charlottesville, peace marches in solidarity with antifascist protesters everywhere, Heyer’s live-streamed memorial service, and so forth. As righteously angry as we are, we all still want to believe that love trumps hate.
But what does that mean, “love trumps hate”? How can love unify an antifascist left when the left has no monopoly on love? After all, fascists still love their mothers, or at least I presume they do. How can love motivate not only an effective resistance to fascism, but also a positive vision of what we want in its place? For we surely mean something other than the proposition that we should all simply be nice to each other. How, then, should we understand love in today’s political and social context, beyond mere bumper-sticker activism?
The answer, I believe, is related to the fundamental work we do as faculty union leaders, labor activists, labor organizers, and political activists: organizing. Wesley Beal, a friend of mine and former grad-school colleague who now teaches English at Lyon College in Arkansas, asked a crucial question on his Facebook page: “Organized hatred demands that we organize love. How can we put that into practice?” To answer that question, we need first to articulate exactly what we mean when we talk about organizing love.
Most intuitively, love is a feeling that we’re all familiar with. “Love” is the name of the affection I feel for my daughter, my partner, my family and close friends. Love might even be what drives the empathy I feel when I pass a homeless person on the sidewalk, or when one of my students shares with me the troubles in their personal life that make it difficult to keep up with their coursework. This feeling of love comes into play when we recite the innumerable names of Black victims of police brutality in the U.S.; when we admire the courage of Takiya Thompson, the activist recently arrested for her role in toppling a Confederate statue in Durham, N.C.; or when we weep for Heather Heyer.
This sort of love, of course, is absolutely necessary, both personally and politically. Everyone needs to love and to feel loved, and our political practice must be driven by compassion and empathy. But when we stop here—when we are content to feel love without acting on that feeling—we are left in the too-familiar impasse of mainstream liberalism when we try to feel our way out of fascism. We have strong emotions about the value of Black lives, about victims of white supremacy, or about injustice and inequity. We wring our hands tearfully, wishing the world were more just. We weep again for Heather Heyer.
But we must do more than weep and feel our feelings. This, I propose, is where an alternative definition of love is useful: love as a form of political practice. My thinking about love along these lines is motivated most of all by the theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. On Hardt and Negri’s take, love is more than the emotions I just described, although it includes them; rather, it’s also a way of engaging with, accepting, empowering, and collaborating with other people in their very otherness. This is crucial to me, both as a Marxist literary critic and as a faculty organizer and labor activist: any meaningful leftist politics requires solidarity and collaboration, and “love” is the name of the process by which solidarity and collaboration are built. In their book Commonwealth, Hardt and Negri write: “When we … form a social body that is more powerful than any of our individual bodies alone, we are constructing a new and common subjectivity…. [L]ove is a process of the production of the common…” (180). When we form networks, collaborate with and support each other, or put our bodies physically on the picket line or in the streets next to each other, we are loving each other.
When we understand love this way, as a political and social practice that builds solidarity and collective power, we can act on the feeling of love in order to begin articulating not only the critique of fascism that is absolutely necessary today, but also a positive, aspirational vision of what we’re actually trying to build: a society in which Black lives matter just as much as any other, not only in principle but in practice. A culture in which racism and white supremacy are as vilified and abhorrent as original Nazism is in contemporary Germany. An educational system that prioritizes the public good of mass higher education and ensures access for all students without indenturing them into a lifetime of debt. Universities that promote critical inquiry and academic freedom over corporate interests and profiteering, and that treat all their faculty—not just tenured faculty—with fairness and respect, both procedurally and economically. A society that recognizes healthcare as a fundamental right, not as a privilege that can be revoked or a commodity to be bought and sold. An economy that provides equitably for the needs of all.
Love-as-feeling operates on the level of the individual subject, but love-as-practice requires that we organize, coordinate, and collaborate. We saw a burst of this sort of activity following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but from where I stand, much of that energy has abated. This fatigue is understandable, but it is also damaging. We have to keep going, because white supremacy, fascism, capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism will keep going.
Join a union. Form activist networks. Seek out opportunities for allyship if your individual identity isn't directly targeted. Support each other, but lovingly hold each other accountable. Speak out when and how you can. Your voice, art, pen, screen, keyboard, hands, heart, and body are antifascist weapons.
James Liner, University of Washington Tacoma. SEIU Local 925, Seattle, Washington