May 26, 2020
By EJ Toppin
Many of the problems we live with today can be distilled down to a lack of belonging. And at the center of a lack of belonging sits a failure to build society from a place of love. When institute Director john powell speaks of belonging, he is presenting a radical vision of the term. Belonging, so conceptualized, does not mean tolerance, does not signify some fuzzy notion of superficial harmony, and cannot, even, be analogized to inclusion. Belonging in this sense is a radical idea that embodies constant work, struggle, disagreement, yet derives from a place of love. Belonging means the ability not to just join a community or institution, but to have the right to co-create the space that one joins. This positions belonging to require a deep commitment to recognize full equality between all people. It demands the stripping of identities and narratives that build barriers between people and marks some as lesser in relation to others. It acknowledges differences yet invites the struggle of moving together, with those differences brought along and influencing the continual development of co-existence.
In his remarks and writing, powell often refers to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s beloved community. Dr. King’s vision advanced community across identities and peoples because he recognized the interconnection of life and that, at root, love ties community together. Recently, I’ve come across two concepts of love – one that has shaped our contemporary world and one that paints an image of what could be – that I thought worth sharing to demonstrate how the treatment of this force and its conceptual positioning effect significant consequences for the society we inhabit.
In “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” author and political philosopher Michael Sandel illustrates the ways in which market thinking has come to dominate society since the 1970s. He details the rise and proliferation of the Chicago School’s economic theory – that market solutions and market logic should be applied to all social problems and should mediate all facets of human life – and how our society has thoroughly come to resemble this thinking in practice. Sandel takes the reader to the root of this theory, exemplified in the writings of one of the Chicago School’s most influential thinkers, Gary Becker.
In the world according to Gary Becker, people in everything that we do are seeking to maximize our welfare, which means that not only can an economic lens analyze all our actions, but economic calculus can determine all our decisions. Because everything we decide to do is the product of cost-benefit analyses, there’s a price signal in each interaction, whether it involves money or is implicit. Therefore, whether one is making an online purchase or pursuing a friendship, choosing a partner, or taking care of a sick or elderly loved one, the choice involves nothing more than the calculus of a market transaction. The ideology that Becker helped to pioneer hasn’t been used only to describe human interactions, it’s pushed society toward living by this rubric. This outcome reflects Becker’s own beliefs, as he argued that people must be made to submit all “human behavior to the frigid calculus of economics.”
With this perspective on human interaction, one could imagine it doesn’t bode well for how this school of thought conceives of love. And their conception in fact does meet this expectation. Sandel tells of Cambridge University economist Sir Dennis Robertson’s 1954 speech at Columbia University where he argued that love is a scarce resource and the role of economics is to advance wherever possible systems and structures that impel people to act in their own self-interest as to conserve the limited amount of love the world has. Sandel then quotes economist Larry Summers who insists that love and altruism have a limited supply, therefore it is “far better to conserve it by designing a system in which people’s wants will be satisfied by individuals being selfish.” By promoting greed and selfishness in our institutions and systems of interaction, we won’t draw down on our capacity to love, lest we deplete it for good.
This ideology stands in stark contrast to the concept of love bell hooks lays out in her book, “All About Love.” Hooks argues that “all spheres of American life…should and could have as their foundation a love ethic,” which “presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well.” For hooks, love is a force that needs constant attention and cultivation for growth, that we are always learning how to care for each other and nurture each other’s growth. The point is that a society constructed with a love ethic at its root, a society devoted to “care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust,” does not stand still, as to act from a place of love means that we continually learn what is required of us in our commitment to the community we’ve forged and constantly strengthen our efforts in that project. “Sustaining love,” as hooks states it, “takes work,” but as we commit to creating the conditions that will allow all to flourish, even as we struggle together through difference and disagreement, we “become more fully ourselves.”
Love, therefore, is the practice that “lays the foundation for the constructive building of community with strangers.” The paradigm that demands our submission to the “frigid calculus of economics” is the antithesis of hooks’s worldview. In it, there is no community. Only the individual exists, free to allow greed to be its guide and dismiss its impact on others. As hooks declares, “the basic interdependency of life is ignored so that separateness and individual gain can be deified.” It follows then that “the principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible,” for “the rugged individual who relies on no one else is a figure who can only exist in a culture of domination where a privileged few use more of the world’s resources than the many who must daily do without.” Over the past nearly half-century, our world has been shaped by a commitment to selfishness and individualism, which has facilitated systems of domination, exploitation, and extraction that work to – instead of conserve love, as was argued – only compound upon themselves and further inure society to such modes of interaction.
We have centered the conviction, however specious, that love should be conserved and have marginalized the belief that love is the practice of committing to strengthening community, and we have built from that starting point, and we have the society to show for it. Market logic now guides nearly our entire decision-making process. And the frigidity of the approach has given us a housing market that shrugs at homelessness, a health care system that places ability to pay above need of care, and a society that has nearly abandoned the concept of public education, to name just a few examples.
It should be clear, as I hope to have demonstrated here, that in order to build a just society, we must put the idea of the beloved community at root and then proceed to build together from there. Not only do we now rely on market logic to guide our lives, we also cannot pass on taking advantage of any market opportunity. This means that the prospect of profiting from patriarchy, racial hierarchy, and class exploitation supersede the work to uproot these structures. One might ask where the love is that we’ve supposedly stored. As bell hooks shows us, if we are to construct a society where everyone’s equality is recognized – a society of true belonging – it will take the embracing of love as a practice. We can then build economic and political systems around this core. We can put people before profits, we can elevate other values to once again help us make decisions and address social issues, and we can devise institutions that are vigilant of, instead of willfully ignorant to, human vulnerability.
Continuing in a society that does not root beloved community severs us, as hooks writes, from the fundamental need of human connection and the fundamental truth of the “interdependency of life.” As our current system crumbles by the reverberation from the rupture of the social fabric, it grows all too clear that if “love is the only sane and satisfactory response to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long-run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.”
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering and Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.