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bell hooks, 1988. | Montikamoss | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Love as a Verb

An anarchist reads bell hooks

All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks, Harper (2000)

I first encountered bell hooks’ 1999 book All About Love in June of 2021, when my partner recommended it to me in the early days of our relationship. Although I was familiar with her stature as a scholar, activist, and pioneering Black feminist thinker, I had never actually gotten around to reading any of hooks’ work. Enticed by my partner’s insistence that the book had completely transformed her perspective on love and relationships, I borrowed her copy and, one particularly sunny weekday afternoon, brought it to a park near Dupont Circle to read. 

Perhaps it was due in part to my relative unfamiliarity with hooks’ writing that, within just the first few pages of reading, I found myself so surprised to understand exactly what my partner had meant when she described just how impactful hooks’ words had been for her. Each successive page filled me with an indescribable sense of something most akin to déjà vu, as if hooks had peered into my mind, observed everything I already believed to be true about love, and repeated it back to me in her own voice, verbalizing these beliefs in a way that I had never quite been able to do.

Born in 1952 in the racially segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, bell hooks graduated from Stanford University in 1973 with a B.A. in English before receiving her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison three years later. In 1981, she published Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, an exploration of the intersections between racial and gender oppression, which she had begun writing at the age of nineteen and which cemented her reputation as a pioneering Black feminist thinker. For the next four decades, hooks—whose birth name was Gloria Jean Watkins, and who adopted the name “bell hooks” as a tribute to her maternal great-grandmother—achieved something of a legendary status for her prolific contributions to our collective understanding of the myriad intersections between race, class, and gender.

Like much of hooks’ writing, All About Love has enjoyed a much-deserved resurgence in popularity since her passing in December of 2021, giving voice to the musings and anxieties of many in my generation when it comes to defining and understanding love. In the year that has passed since I first read the book, forever altering my understanding of what love is and how it functions, another dimension of its significance has become clear to me—the deep and powerful implications that hooks’ argument holds for a politics oriented towards liberation. 

Early on in All About Love, hooks establishes the book’s primary purpose as being to take on the herculean task of defining a concept as amorphous and multifaceted as love. It is confusion over the true nature and definition of love, she argues, that lies at the heart of our collective “difficulty in loving,” and she notes that “if our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying.”1bell hooks, All About Love (New York: William Morrow, 2001), 3. This ambiguity, hooks contends, is due in large part to the fact that existing definitions fall woefully short—dictionary definitions, she argues, tend to overemphasize romantic love at the expense of other types, and much popular writing about love explicitly avoids providing explicit definitions.

Drawing upon the philosophy of M. Scott Peck and Erich Fromm, hooks argues for a definition of love that emphasizes its quality as a verb rather than as a noun—love as a conscious, dynamic, and ongoing act, rather than a static and passive feeling. In this conception, love is defined as “‘the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth’”—a process which requires the ability “to mix various ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”2Ibid., 4-5.

Equally important to this definition of love, however, is hooks’ conviction that, as she simply puts it, “love and abuse cannot coexist.”3Ibid., 6. It is an assertion so obvious as to almost render it a truism, but as hooks rightly points out, far too many of us spend our entire lives laboring under the false assumption that love can and abuse can, in fact, coexist—that you can love someone with every fiber of your being and still, by the fallibility of human nature, find it in yourself to hurt them. 

Although we are all conditioned to believe this falsehood from an early age, accepting as children this “grown-up logic” that “we knew in our hearts…was not right,”4Ibid., 17. hooks is unequivocal in her assertion that the very existence of abuse in the first place is a “testament to the failure of loving practice.”5Ibid., 22. This fundamental incompatibility between love and abuse is central to both hooks’ thesis and to its broader political implications.

Traditionally, when we think about love, we think about the kind of love that exists between two individuals—romantic partners, for instance, or a parent and child. Throughout All About Love, however, hooks makes it clear that to read the book solely as a meditation on love in the interpersonal sense would be a grave oversight. Writing about the dominant trend in New Age commentaries on love, hooks expresses her discomfort with the approach most commonly used: “I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.”6Ibid., 76.

Far from being individualistic, hooks’ conception of love and its role in society is inherently political—hardly a surprising position given her lifelong insistence that, as she once wrote elsewhere, “our lives must be a living example of our politics.” Within this political conception of love, hooks contends that love is as important on the communal and societal levels as it is on the interpersonal level, and she identifies many of the most challenging problems facing American society as stemming from a pervasive culture of lovelessness. The hollowness of social life and hyper-individualistic ethos that permeate our culture, according to hooks, stem from the overwhelming materialism and consumerism that dominate society under contemporary capitalism, which she argues gives rise to a social order in which “the basic interdependency of life is ignored so that separateness and individual gain can be deified.”7Ibid., 73.

Again, all of this is hardly surprising given the sharp critique of capitalism that appears throughout hooks’ career and body of work, and it highlights the subtle but crucial anti-capitalist undercurrent running through hooks’ conception of love. A close reading of All About Love through a leftist lens, however, can in fact be taken a step further to reveal an equally salient anti-authoritarian current, from which anarchists (and the anti-authoritarian Left more broadly) stand to draw valuable lessons. 

Just as hooks is unequivocal in her conviction that love and abuse are fundamentally incompatible, she makes it clear in All About Love that she views love and domination in the same way. “The world of domination,” hooks writes, “is always a world without love,”8Ibid., 123. and the national “awakening to love” that she argues is necessary to healing our societal ills can only take place “as we let go of our obsession with power and domination.”9Ibid., 87 Instead, she argues that “all spheres of American life”—from politics to the workplace to intimate relationships, and everything in between—must “have as their foundation a love ethic,” which she defines as an ethic which “presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well.”10Ibid

At its core, the anarchist project—the project of constructing a world free from all forms of hierarchy, domination, and oppression—shares these same values. Although we may not speak of them in exactly the same terms, the egalitarian and anti-authoritarian principles of anarchism are fundamentally identical to those underlying hooks’ conception of love, which necessarily requires an even playing field between all parties. Even her definition of love as “the will to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, revealed through acts of care, respect, knowing, and assuming responsibility”11Ibid., 136. is itself closely aligned with the bonds of mutual care and solidarity that, as any truly committed anarchist would likely agree, must necessarily shape the way we relate to one another in any viable anarchist society. In this sense, one might argue that anarchy and love are in fact inextricably intertwined—that not only can anarchic principles be found at the heart of all genuine love, but perhaps that love itself must be at the heart of all genuine anarchism.

The anarchic principles underpinning hooks’ conception of love can similarly be read in her discussion of the absolute incompatibility between love and abuse, where she repeatedly links abuse with coercion and domination. Hooks highlights this equivalency because, as has been widely recognized, abuse in a relationship of any type is fundamentally about power—the conditions that give rise to it are ultimately the result of power differentials, and its purpose is always for the abuser to weaponize those differentials in order to assert and maintain domination over the abused. Like the rest of hooks’ thesis, however, these dynamics extend beyond the interpersonal—the very structure of capitalist state society, which requires hierarchical structures of coercion and domination in order to function, forces us to enter into fundamentally abusive relationships with our fellow citizens, constantly struggling to assert dominance over others by any means necessary in order to survive. 

If love is, as hooks contends, a compelling antidote to domination, then perhaps an anarchist politics rooted in hooks’ conception of love can offer us a way out of this status quo. Indeed, hooks’ notion of a “love ethic”—the presupposition that all people, simply by virtue of their humanity, have the right “to live fully and well”—is itself the same ethic that underlies any Left project worth its salt. It is the same ethic that animated, for example, the politics of revolutionary anarchist Emma Goldman, who once wrote that anarchism for her meant securing “freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” With their shared refusal to compromise on the inherent right of every human being to lead a flourishing, fulfilling life to the fullest extent possible, anarchism and the love ethic are in fact mutually inseparable.

It is precisely this love ethic that lies at the heart of what are perhaps the two most important tenets of anarchist praxis—mutual aid and community care. We care for those with whom we share community not only because of our ideological convictions, but because on the most fundamental level, we love them. On a personal level we may be indifferent to them, and may not even know them at all, but in the sense that hooks means when she talks about a love ethic, we love them. Every act of mutual aid and community care, from supply distribution to encampment defense, is at its core an act of love—we do these things, often for people with whom we are not personally close, because regardless of our individual relationships, we are nevertheless committed to defending their fundamental right “to be free, to live fully and well.”

And yet, the maddening tendency of many leftists—whether we like to admit it to ourselves as not—to view politics as an aesthetic performance rather than a liberatory endeavor means that the love ethic is all too often shortchanged in our politics. Love, for all its value as a principle, is hardly a “cool” term, its saccharine connotations a far cry from the dramatic image of a battle-hardened, Molotov-wielding revolutionary that so many self-styled radicals aspire to project. The notion of a politics rooted in love must no doubt strike many as sappy and cloying, appealing only to over-sentimental liberals and Marianne Williamson-types (indeed, Williamson does receive a shout-out from hooks on more than one occasion throughout All About Love). 

But just as it is clearly a mistake to think of love solely as an individualistic or interpersonal phenomenon, rather than a societal and communal one, it is a similarly grave error to underestimate the power that love can hold when centered in our politics. Capitalism and state society are intentionally structured so as to make it as difficult as possible for us to love—the regime of hierarchy and domination imposed on us by these structures requires us to view one another with suspicion and distrust, and the human connection engendered by genuine love is the single greatest threat to this status quo. 

“Cultures of domination,” hooks observes, “rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience.”12Ibid., 93. No matter where we find ourselves in American society, if we look around us we can see countless examples of this “cultivation of fear”. From the media we consume to the rhetoric of our leaders to the constant reminders in public and private spaces alike that we are under surveillance, every aspect of our society is designed to forestall our ability to love by stoking our ability to fear—to fear strangers, to fear our neighbors, even to fear ourselves. In this sense, far from being a capitulation to liberal sentimentalism, a politics rooted in love may in fact be a revolutionary weapon as powerful as any bomb or barricade. 

It isn’t just that centering a love ethic at the heart of our politics makes tactical sense, given the existential threat that love poses to the status quo. A love ethic is, in fact, precisely the same ethic that already governs any serious vision of an anarchist future. If, as hooks contends, the tension between domination and love as the foundation of society is necessarily a zero-sum game, and if a world of domination is a world rooted in fear, then it follows that by removing the structures and institutions that condition us to fear, we simultaneously increase our collective capacity to love. Translated into the language of anarchist politics, this means that the world that anarchists dream of—a world without prisons, without police or borders or instruments of surveillance and control—is a world governed by a love ethic. In other words, the vision of a world without domination—the world that all anarchists, by virtue of rejecting any form of domination on principle, aspire to—is inseparable from the vision of a world governed by love.

Author

  • Pranay Somayajula (@p_somayajula) is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and essayist. He runs a blog called No More Mangoes (https://nomoremangoes.substack.com), where they examine migration, diaspora, and immigrant identity from a critical left perspective.

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.