Can progressives talk about love without embarrassment?

A review of Michael Lerner’s new book, Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World.

SOURCEIndependent Media Institute

The liberal and progressive agenda today is clear. Despite some differences, liberals or progressives think it’s important to redistribute income and wealth, to make education free, to provide some version of universal health care, and to defend and promote the rights and interests of women, people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. They identify with the victims of our current system and stand for social justice in every area of life. Liberals and progressives owe their ideological loyalties to the New Deal and the Great Society, and honor the social democracies and safety nets of Scandinavia. Some call themselves Socialists, others progressive, and still others liberal Democrats. But most people on the modern Left understand and share a common vision of what constitutes a good life and a just society.

But what if this vision of economic democracy and justice is too small? What if it not only is incomplete but also paradoxically fails to address other, equally important and real needs and concerns of most people in our society? What if it’s just not good enough? And what if its proponents harbor attitudes that antagonize or alienate the very constituencies needed to gain and hold political power?

Rabbi Michael Lerner argues that these problems in the progressive worldview are bigger and deeper than we think. In his new book, Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World, Lerner argues persuasively that progressives have some big blind spots that limit their ability to speak to people’s deepest needs. Progressives usually assume that, to quote the consummate Democratic insider, James Carville, “it’s the economy, stupid”—that people’s economic needs are foundational. Lerner correctly argues that people have needs for love, caring, recognition, meaning, and community that are every bit as primary as their needs for bread and butter—but that these non-economic needs are invisible to many on the Left. Lerner presents the notion of “revolutionary love,” to describe an attitude that is both highly personal and radically political. It is about transcending one’s own narrow self-interest to experience others as “manifestations of the sacred, and recognizing that a world where all are treated with respect and nurturance, both material and emotional, is in fact, in one’s own self-interest as well. It is finding meaning in one’s life through relieving the pain and suffering of others, and joining with them in joyous and mutually nourishing relationships.” This is what people actually need, and this is what progressives have failed to see. Some people on the religious Left do take needs for meaning seriously, of course, but don’t push these ideas very much because they correctly sense the degree to which progressives are skeptical of religion.

Because of this fundamental misunderstanding, progressives can’t speak to the multiple ways, including emotional and even spiritual ways, that people suffer in a culture that celebrates the capitalist market and the selfish individualism that it enshrines. When success, the “good life,” and the value of individuals are based on how much money and status they can acquire, the result is a deep sense of emptiness and alienation. Lerner calls this the Great Depression. By this, he means that when people are deprived of love, respect, and community, when they don’t feel cared for in their schools, hospitals, workplaces or the public square, they experience a deep type of psychic pain and suffering. A political movement that speaks to this pain will be successful; a movement that ignores it in favor of a narrow focus on material well-being will fail.

Lerner argues that if progressives were to put forth a vision of a society with a “new bottom line,” they would appeal to the widest and deepest possible coalition of supporters. By new bottom line, Lerner means that “the productivity, efficiency, and rationality of our society, and its institutions” shall be judged “by the degree to which these institutions and preferences enhance our capacities to be loving, respectful, compassionate, empathic, generous and caring,” as well as “supportive of economic, environmental, and social justice.”

In our society, so many people who are suffering from material and psychological scarcity also come to blame themselves for their own suffering, subject as we all are to the meritocratic—and shaming—myth that our social standing is primarily a result of our own intrinsic effort and value. The Right has come along and offered people a message that appears to regard this suffering with compassion and offers community, albeit one that then blames some demeaned Other (immigrants, gay marriage, Muslims, feminists) for the problem. Lerner points out that at least the Right seems to understand that many people in our society are alienated and feel left behind, left out, and feel that they are in a race, a shameful race, to the bottom. In fact, these feelings of being an outsider, abandoned by Washington and liberal elites, were explicitly addressed by Donald Trump. In its relentless focus on economic inequality, the Left too often ignores this dimension of people’s pain. In Lerner’s view, progressives will never succeed unless and until they directly challenge this meritocratic myth and expose how it originates in corrupt capitalist values. Just as second-wave feminism empowered women by critiquing the self-blaming that women learned from a patriarchal culture, so too must progressives directly speak about revolutionary love as the antidote to the self-blaming and psycho-spiritual distress caused by our market-driven society. The obstacle, however, is not only our prevailing cultural ethos but also the resistance of the Left to any strategy that seems to address and heal people’s inner lives.

If people are viewed as motivated by a hunger for love and not just a need to maximize their narrow economic self-interest, then our vision of a possible world that speaks to this deeper hunger will look a lot different than the New Deal. And Lerner devotes much of his new book to detailing what that vision should look like.

Lerner, a rabbi in the Jewish renewal tradition, is a veteran of the Left, having made his bones as a leader of the anti-war movement and, later, as the editor of Tikkun Magazine, the leading publication of the Jewish Left in America. His new book, Revolutionary Love, takes up where his prior book, The Politics of Meaning, left off. In both these works, Lerner argues for a politics that speaks to people’s deep need for meaning and purpose. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “[the market] knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” In Revolutionary Love, Lerner lays out the psycho-spiritual consequences of Wilde’s description of the cynical corruption inherent in capitalism, and he argues for a movement designed to counteract that corruption.

Revolutionary Love proposes how various institutions would have to be transformed in order to correct the psychic and moral damage done by capitalism. Lerner is careful to communicate that the liberal ideals of income redistribution and free health care are still a vital part of a progressive agenda, but that the manner in which these changes are made, the way they are communicated, and the spirit with which they are offered, must always be grounded in his notion of a “new bottom line” of love, caring, and generosity.

Lerner isn’t some messianic idealist proposing that social ills can be all solved by love. He thinks that there’s a fight ahead of us as we attempt to defeat the forces of vested interests and privileges that keep the existing system in place. But he persuasively argues, I believe, that our fight must be framed in a language that emphasizes empathy and generosity, one that recognizes that our real and potential constituencies have needs to be seen and understood at the deepest level.

Take the issue of health care. Of course, Lerner supports health care as a universal right. But mere access to medical care is too narrow a demand. In the world Lerner asks us to imagine, people would feel treated with empathy and care from the moment they make an appointment to the moment they received the medical care they need. Too many of us have good-enough insurance, but still suffer from frustrating wait times, bureaucracies, and time-limitations of our doctors and end up feeling like we’re things that are being repaired rather than people who need empathy and care. Agitating for universal coverage is good, but even better would be a movement to revolutionize medical care such that it treats the whole person with understanding and appreciation.

Of course, schools and colleges should be free. But schools, in Lerner’s view, should also seek to shape children into beings who appreciate the natural world, are sensitive to injustice, and have high ethical principles. Schools should teach empathy and help children develop a sense of awe and wonder about nature and a commitment to preserve it in the face of our climate crisis in any way possible. The fact of universal education should be embedded in a spirit that emphasizes ethical values.

Further, Lerner calls for a universal basic income and a 28-hour workweek divided into four days, not on the grounds that we have a “right” to such a week, but because having that amount of time to be with our families can be a way to strengthen the ties of love of workers who will then not be as exhausted as they are today.

Giving people free medical care, education, and more leisure time is important, Lerner states, but it’s necessary to present these reforms in a language that isn’t based only on the objective fact of access or economics, but instead, in the context of a larger conversation about love, generosity, and caring empathy. People are hungry for that, and we speak to the whole person when we assume that these non-economic needs are every bit as important as economic justice and self-interest.

Revolutionary Love aims to clarify the nuts and bolts of how this new bottom line would function. Lerner argues for an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution that not only gets rid of Citizens United but that says that a business can be chartered only if it can demonstrate a history of environmental and social responsibility. He advocates for a Global Marshall Plan, engaging in a coalition of wealthy nations to eliminate poverty.

These notions are usually regarded as psychobabble at worst and unrealistic at best. Lerner goes to great lengths to understand and deconstruct this cynicism. He thinks that we, liberals included, suffer from a radical empiricism which assumes that if one cannot show how one’s claims can be measured, verified or falsified, then the claims are meaningless. He calls this “scientism” and differentiates it from science. He proposes that, using this yardstick, any attempt to talk about creating a sensibility based on spiritual principles or even ethical ideals is foolish. And yet how could the ideology of radical empiricism and scientism have predicted the eruption of revolutionary energy in Paris in May 1968, or the second wave of feminism in the mid-20th century? The empirical method, he argues, couldn’t and can’t do so when we’re talking about the possibility of human emancipation but, instead, is used to discount the whole realm of ethics and spirituality.

It’s easy to see how a capitalist economic system sees something as “rational” only to the extent that it maximizes money or power. All other concerns are deemed flakey, weak, and unrealistic. In Revolutionary Love, Lerner urges us to be tough in standing up for kindness, empathy and compassion. Since he believes that such attitudes are exactly what we all want, then revolutionary love is a real possibility. If one is caught up in the prevailing bottom line ethos of the market, then things like domination and exploitation seem inevitable and natural. Always, for Lerner, the question one should ask about any idea, program or policy is: Does this move us toward the belief that everyone is out for him or herself or toward love and care? The battle between fear and domination on the one hand and love and generosity on the other is the central dynamic in the world today.

A central proposition of Revolutionary Love is that liberals and certainly the Democratic Party have unwittingly patronized and devalued many people by overlooking their pain, pain that has resulted from a loss of community, meaningful work, and stable families. Rather than feel that their suffering has been seen and appreciated, many have felt judged for being not deserving of sympathy because, for example, they are too white or too male. If someone has even the slightest degree of privilege, that person is made to feel guilty about it. While Lerner is a warrior in the struggle against racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, he points out that everyone, including most white men, is victimized in our capitalist society, and he observes that the liberal world was relatively quiet, shamefully quiet in his view, when Hillary Clinton described many Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” He proposes, instead, that many Trump supporters would be willing to come out against him if they felt welcomed by a Democratic Party that seemed to understand and speak to their issues—issues that are not reducible to economic inequality.

There are cringe-worthy parts of Revolutionary Love where Lerner goes out on a limb and paints a picture of a movement based on love and a society based on caring and generosity. It is impossible to read some of his conjectures and not recoil in the face of what seems like their practical impossibility. Even someone like myself who believes in Lerner’s basic premise that people care deeply about other things, in addition to “kitchen table” issues involving economic security, raised a skeptical eyebrow to some of his more radical proposals (e.g., like-minded people who believe in the vision of Revolutionary Love should form “empathy tribes” as their fundamental unit of organizing).

But then I had to stop and ask myself about the deeper sources of my own cynicism or skeptical “realism.” And when I did, I found certain beliefs that Lerner correctly calls out as part of the ideology of domination and fear in which so many of us are embedded. When I find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s not going to change,” or “Oh, that’s not possible,” I have to step back and ask myself how unlikely it is that in a scant 50 years, our attitudes toward women have so radically changed and how unlikely it seemed only 10 years ago that gay marriage would become common and accepted. So, readers have to tolerate their discomfort with Lerner’s idealism and be willing to confront the cynicism lying beneath that discomfort.

It seems to me that we won’t go wrong if we aim high, if we articulate what we really want and lay out a vision of a world that is founded in love, generosity, and compassion. Revolutionary Love gives us a blueprint for how that might look, and all of us should be grateful for the guidance.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.


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