My partner being from New Zealand (and, handily, very into political philosophy and law), I tend to hear about the latest political developments from this set of small islands in the South Pacific. My two key takeaways from this delve into Kiwi politics are: (i) Max Harris and (ii) Holly Walker. In this article I look at Max’s ‘Politics of Love’ and how it might apply to contemporary politics in the UK.
Max is from Wellington, New Zealand. He is currently an Examination Fellow at All Souls College in Oxford where he wrote “The New Zealand Project“. Far from being relevant solely to New Zealand politics however, the book takes a critical look at a number of themes that are highly relevant to the UK today. With chapters titled ‘justice means more than revenge‘ and ‘the art of what might not seem possible at the moment: on decolonisation and constitutions‘, Max looks at (amongst other things) mass incarceration, the cult of celebrity, decolonisation, technology, and social infrastructure (health, education, and housing).
Central to ‘The New Zealand Project’ are two tenets: (i) that the “Holy Trinity of capitalism, liberalism and democracy” might not be the “best guiding principles for politics” and (ii) the State should assume a greater role in our society. Underpinning this shift, Max propounds the values of “care, community, and creativity”, which he says are “related to, and inspired by, Māori [that is, the indigenous people of New Zealand] approaches to ethics, life and collective action”. In short, Max seeks a return to a “values-based politics”.
What is ‘wrong’ with society?
Max laments “the economic reforms that started in the mid-1980s” which, he says:
“have created a more self-interested society, and chipped away at the idea of a society with a shared destiny. Those reforms cut taxes on the wealthy, privatised or semi-privatised public institutions, and loosened regulation of markets. As citizens, we have been more willing to see ourselves as isolated, competitive individuals who should pursue our own self-interest. As voters, we are more willing to be motivated by self-interest.”
How Can ‘The Politics of Love’ Help?
Building on the values of “care, community, and creativity”, Max seeks a politics based on love, which he says is “a stronger value than care” or “a deep warmth directed towards another”. A love-based politics means (i) political action being motivated by and expressing love, (ii) love being an end-goal of politics, and (iii) love as a virtue that we appreciate in people participating in politics. Max then asks:
“What would it mean for love – a deep warmth directed towards another – to be more broadly incorporated into politics?“
and applies this principle to “clusters of challenges” relating to the world of work in New Zealand, including welfare benefits, the elderly, and accident compensation. I truly recommend you read the book (Chapter 8) to enjoy the excellent analysis that follows.
On welfare benefits, for example, he denounces “beneficiary-bashing” by media commentators, politicians, public sector officials and laws. He reminds us that:
“many [people] receive some form of government assistance in their lifetime, especially if a government benefit is defined broadly to include public education, student loans, public transport, public health care, a home ownership subsidy or a pension.“
Using evidence to challenge the popular notion that those on welfare benefits are irresponsible or lazy, Max says that “they also may represent some of the people in the community most in need of support”. In short:
“The politics of love…should help individuals to see the justification for welfare benefits: to provide warmth and support, through income transfers, to vulnerable individuals.“
How does this relate to the UK?
The Politics of Love could not be more timely or needed in the UK today. Divisions are rife – over Brexit, over immigration, over extremism. Instead of tackling (or indeed preventing) these issues with a Politics of Love, the UK government has added fuel to the fire through a politics of inaction and an assumed stance of ‘toughness‘ (on immigration, on welfare benefits – the word ‘curbing’ is used all too often in the tabloid media). The aftermath of the Brexit vote is a key example of this inaction, and demonstrates how far we have strayed from a “values-based politics”.
In my two years (plus) as a writer for the human rights news and information website RightsInfo.org, we have tackled issues that I consider stem from a governmental ‘toughness’. These include reducing welfare benefits, reducing the scope of legal aid, and the treatment of immigrants in detention centres. Sometimes the courts have come down against these policies, but this “safety valve” is a far cry from a love-based, values-based politics, which I consider would be of huge benefit to the UK’s political system today.
- I very much encourage you to read ‘The New Zealand Project‘, as a positive, forward-looking treatise on how modern politics can look today.
- But if you don’t have time (!) – please do check out Max’s blog – The Aoteroa Project
Please note that the ‘Politics of Love’ was co-developed by Max Harris and Philip McKibbin in their blog post ‘The Politics of Love’.
Endnote: Today I came across this Stylist article, which relays stories of how happy people were when they received personalised letters from the Obamas congratulating them on their wedding, new baby, or graduation. I think this is a nice example of how a ‘Politics of Love’ resonates with people.