Theory read

The Political Power of Love

The contemporary world is characterized by high levels of individualization i.e. the withdrawal of people from any substantive engagement in inter-subjectively meaningful collective activity. Such decomposition of the social body has cut off people from one another, and made them lonely, fragile, sad, and stressed out. They are in need of a recomposed social body.

In his book “The Communism of Love: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Exchange Value,” Richard Gilman-Opalsky writes, “Recomposition is the hopeful opposite of decomposition and it indicates an effort to revitalize confidence and hope, to be with others who share your feeling, and to confront and combat loneliness—not alone, but together.”

Interpersonal feelings can either be of an erotic nature or simply form a bond of intense affection.

To be empathic together, to express feelings together—this is what revolts do when they break out. A revolt is no less about collective sadness than it is about anger. Often, revolt is less about political transformations than ontological ones.

Insofar that the militancy of revolts derives not only from the conceptual coherence and organizational strength of political agendas but also from fundamental yearnings for psychosocial health and communitarian sensibilities, love has a lot of political relevance. Franco Berardi makes a poetic comparison between rebels in the streets and feelings of love.

He writes that solidarity “has nothing to do with altruistic self-denial. In materialistic terms, solidarity is not about you; it is about me. Like love, it is not about altruism, it is about the pleasure of sharing the breath and the space of the other. Love is the ability to enjoy myself thanks to your presence, thanks to your eyes.”

Explaining this passage, Gilman-Opalsky notes that “love and solidarity with others is good for one’s own self. When we speak of love, we are not speaking of charity. But we should resist the idea that love is either egoistic or altruistic. Love is both altruistic and egoistic, but at the same time it is neither. Love recombines individuals into a collective being, a one comprising many, a heterogeneous collectivity of two or more that has interests beyond any of its discrete members.”

As is evident, love demonstrates the basic fact that the development of the human individual’s personality and being-in-the-world can take place only through relations with others. This specificity of love is significantly different from the non-relational nature of sex.

Alan Badiou comments: “in sex, each individual is to a large extent on their own, if I can put it that way. Naturally, the other’s body has to be mediated, but at the end of the day, the pleasure will be always your pleasure. Sex separates, doesn’t unite… In sex, you are really in a relationship with yourself via the mediation of the other. The other helps you to discover the reality of pleasure.”

Insofar that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship, what comes to fill this absence, this non-relationship, is love. In the words of Badiou,

In love the individual goes beyond himself, beyond the narcissistic…the mediation of the other is enough in itself. Such is the nature of the amorous encounter: you go to take on the other, to make him or her exist with you, as he or she is.

To better understand how love is tied to a distinct form of sociality, one in which our existential identity is fully realized through the free expression of others’ identities, we can take recourse to psychoanalytic theories. The emergence of the signifying order directly coincides the formation of a constitutive lack at the heart of human subjectivity.

In the language system developed by humans, significatory connotation confers an additional or excess meaning on objects that is not reducible to their empirical existence. This translates into the construction of a division between the signifier and signified, between the name and the idea of the object, with no amount of linguistic effort ever being able to close this gap.

We keep moving from one signifier to another along the signifying chain, as one signifier constantly refers to another in a perpetual deferral of meaning. This separation of the signifier and the signified also denotes the separation of the subject from the satisfying object (“objet a”). This object gives an over-all orientation the subject’s desire even though the subject has never had it. Todd McGowan remarks:

​[T]o exist within signification is to accept loss as constitutive, a situation that psychoanalysis calls lack. Signification retroactively creates a lost object that was lost with the entrance into signification and that would have provided complete satisfaction if it had actually existed. Even though this object has no substantial status and can never acquire any concrete form, it shapes the contours of subjectivity. All of the subject’s multifarious activity within the world of signification centers around the attempt to rediscover this object that it never possessed.

Since absence animates the subject, repetitious attachment to failure – attributable to the loss of the object that signification entails – becomes a defining characteristic of human subjectivity. We unconsciously satisfy ourselves through successive efforts to attain a missing satisfaction. Though we strive for success, we continue to engage in a series of failures, and the repetition of failure is the logic of subjectivity.

This unconscious drive for failure obtains enjoyment/jouissance in the repetitive process of not reaching it. However, this drive is always masked to our conscious thoughts as a desire for a seemingly attainable object present in reality; this desire, as we know, can never be fulfilled due to the structural incompleteness of language. That is why our dissatisfied psyche keeps elevating myriad objects to the impossible-real object of desire, being temporarily infatuated with their supposedly sublime qualities before moving onto another object.

Love eliminates the unending journey of desire by relocating jouissance from the status of unconscious to consciousness. Instead of satisfying itself through the failure to realize its desire, all the while believing in the idea that it pursues success, the subject involved in a relation of love comes to identify itself with the inevitability of lack.

While desire always gets entangled in the metonymic chain, where it can never be pinned down, and is in a continual condition of “that’s not it,” love accepts this un-obtainability of the satisfying object. As such, it sees the Other in its ontological negativity, paying attention to what it lacks.

The observation of this common experience of an originary loss allows the subject to truly bond with the Other, to initiate a free interaction of desires in which it can enjoy its lack without feeling this lack as a deprivation. Instead of trying to escape, or domesticate its lack, the subject comes to see it as a precondition for the creative and controlled guidance of desire on the terrain of reality. Thus, in love, enjoyment is obtained not from the unconscious drive toward the repetition of failure, but from the conscious ability to freely explore the various intricacies of desire with an Other.

Through the impulse of love, objet a ceases to function as an always-unavailable sublime object that pushes us toward dissatisfaction. Rather, it coincides with the various banal objects of desire, becoming a freely chosen way through which we materialize our lack. In this way, a productive tension is inaugurated between the sublime and the banal, which enables lovers to occupy a precarious space where they weave fantasmatic fabrics in response to their lack – a contingent process that is dependent on the ability of the subject freely determine the composition of his/her fantasies.

If the aforementioned right is denied to any of the participants of the love encounter, then desire, in its wish to consume the object, would fail to see the Other in its Real dimension, in its aspect of lack. And such a blindness to the lack of the Other would mean the inability of the subject to come to terms with the structural absence of objet a.

Here, we can see how the generativity of love is crucially linked to the willingness of each participant to regard each other’s personal identity in the fullness of its pure singularity and Otherness, in the totality of its distinctive being. Therefore, genuine love is democratic since it has to allow the Other to unrestrictedly respond to its lack through fantasmatic materializations of this loss.

Today, neoliberalism’s social Darwinian norms have weakened the solidaristic aspects of love, romantically reducing it to sex. Gilman-Opalsky remarks that our societies “valorize youth, youthful beauty, speed, energy, and stamina.” This fetishistic portrayal of “sexual relations depicts uncontrollable passion for the other’s body and being, for an erotic explosion that is sustained over time.”

Such a distorted focus on sex is accompanied by the conservative vision of “a mainly monogamous, heterosexual, and religious model of sexual togetherness [that] invariably miniaturizes love to make it fit with a narrow strand of human relationality.”

We ourselves become small private properties of someone else, with miniaturized spheres of affection…As a whole, then, shrinking love both shrinks love, domesticating it and stripping it of its social dimensions, and shrinks us down to the little commodities of some present or future family/marital unit, complete with private purposes and concerns.

In opposition to the neoliberal depiction of sexual intercourse as the highest depiction of love, Gilman-Opalsky comments that we have to see love as “a practice that socializes a unique polyamory beyond the structure of romantic relationship. This polyamory is not about having multiple partners, and is not primarily sexual or romantic, but is instead the polyamory of a communist affection for others.” “The core idea is that love is a union with someone or something outside of oneself that in no way diminishes one’s own individuality or sense of self. The notion that displaced attention from one’s own self to another shrinks oneself is false; in fact, the individual person actually grows only in unity with others.”

Love’s radical capacity to unite us all in our vulnerabilities, in our lack and in our uniqueness, can serve as a potent political tool in the fight against capitalism’s dehumanizing destruction of human relations and social sensibilities of solidarity.


Originally published on Midwestern Marx.

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at yanisiqbal@gmail.com. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.

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