Inside Story

What’s love got to do with it?

Like Martin Luther King, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wants to take the anger out of democracy

Stephen Mills Books 12 October 2018 2113 words

Blame the deed not the doer: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr is welcomed by his wife Coretta after his conviction for conspiracy to boycott buses during the desegregation campaign was suspended pending appeal on 22 March 1956. Gene Herrick/AP Photo

The Monarchy of Fear
By Martha Nussbaum | Oxford University Press | $38.95 | 272 pages

Is there a place for love in Australian politics? Prime minister Scott Morrison thinks so. Two weeks after he emerged from a tumultuous party room as leader, he challenged a Liberal Party gathering in Albury to “love all Australians.”

Morrison showed he was comfortable, to say the least, talking about emotions; the speech was a veritable lovefest. “I love Australia,” he declared. “Who loves Australia? Everyone. We all love Australia. Of course we do. But do we love all Australians? That’s a different question, isn’t it? Do we love all Australians? We’ve got to. That’s what brings a country together.”

The prime minister might be surprised to hear an entirely different voice, from the other end of the political spectrum and on a different intellectual plane, also arguing for the primacy of love in politics. University of Chicago philosopher and lawyer Martha Nussbaum, author of this powerful analysis of the Trumpian crisis in American politics, The Monarchy of Fear, insists the way forward lies in love: not romantic love or even friendship, but a love that “simply consists in seeing the other person as fully human, and capable of some level of good and of change.”

They have little in common, our blokey Pentecostal PM, and Martha Nussbaum, winner of the prestigious Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy in 2016. She is a prolific, informed and immensely readable philosopher and classicist. The Monarchy of Fear, her twenty-third book, continues her advocacy for the humanities and the arts, and her exploration of what she has called “political emotions.” She wants us to choose policies and institutions that “produce love, hope and cooperation, avoiding those that feed hatred and disgust.”

Indeed, Nussbaum’s vision of love in politics is more inclusive, more reasoned and more instrumental than Morrison’s. Not for her the nasty hint of exclusion in Morrison’s definition of “all” Australians: “whether they’ve become an Australian by birth ten generations ago, when my ancestors came… or if you came last week, if you’ve chosen to be here in this country.” Was this an unconscious act of delineation? Perhaps an error caused by speaking off the cuff, televangelist-style? But to judge the prime minister by his actual words, he does not include Indigenous Australians or detained asylum seekers among the loveable. This despite his insistence that loving each other “is what brings a country together.” The contrast with Nussbaum is strong.

She proposes, moreover, some general strategies to express love in practical public policy. Morrison’s speech was over before he had provided any detail on how he might translate his love into policy, or how it should shape his behaviour as leader. For Nussbaum, a decent society must learn how group hatred can be minimised by social efforts and institutional design. Mainstreaming schoolchildren with disabilities, for example, has been shown to alter how people see and feel about one another.

More provocatively, she calls for mandatory three-year programs of national civil service for young Americans, during which they would “do work that urgently needs doing all over America,” such as providing care for the elderly and children or building civil infrastructure. The essential feature is that young people would be sent away from their own neighbourhoods into different regions, so as to break down the isolating barriers of race and class and promote a sense of the common good: “The two problems are connected: because people don’t meet one another across major divisions, they have a hard time thinking outside their economic or racial group toward a sense of common purpose.”

Underpinning the idea are the benefits of young people seeing the diversity of people in their country, as soldiers did during the second world war, “only my young people would be trying to help, not kill.” Here then is one idea of a leading philosopher to “bring a country together.” She knows, of course, that it is wildly unrealistic, politically impossible. “But if people don’t talk about it, it certainly won’t be possible. So I put my cards on the table.”

It is a symptom of the times that this most powerful critique of the Trump presidency rarely mentions the man. This is deliberate and pointed. The Monarchy of Fear should not be confused with insiders’ accounts like Bob Woodward’s Fear or Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Nussbaum doesn’t get near the White House and doesn’t do gossip. No one has leaked anything to her. As a philosopher and classicist, she is fine with this. Her approach is to see through the individuals — the president, those who voted for him, and those who did not — in order to analyse their underlying emotions. This, rather than policy prescription, makes up the bulk of her penetrating analysis.

Nussbaum’s central argument, providing the tension that animates the entire book, rests on a simple and powerful contrast: a monarchy operates on fear while a democracy operates on trust. In a monarchy, the subjects fear the monarch above and the enemy outside; their fear of punishment and their yearning for security make them both compliant and servile. Democracies, by contrast, operate on trust: citizens need to trust each other if they are to place their future in each other’s hands.

The intellectual foundations of this critique lie not in political science or sociology but in moral philosophy and, more surprisingly to this reader, psychology. Specifically, Nussbaum argues that monarchic fear originates in the earliest moments of infancy. She uses the vivid simile of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, for whom the newborn, “like a sailor cast forth from the fierce waves, lies naked on the ground, unable to speak, in need of every sort of help to stay alive… And it fills the whole space with mournful weeping, as is fitting for one to whom such trouble remains in life.”

Birth introduces the human newborn to “painful solitary powerlessness,” and early infancy is “the stuff of nightmare” because — unlike any other mammal — the human newborn experiences a long period of complete helplessness and vulnerability, utterly dependent on others for food and warmth and shelter. Nussbaum concludes that fear is “genetically the first among the emotions.”

This fear has consequences. The infant quickly learns that to survive it needs to command the service of others: “The only way you can get what you need is to make some other part of the world get it for you.” This “imperious baby” is the proto-monarch, mastering its fear through intense narcissism and external control — but only enjoying fleeting reassurance before returning to insufficiency and terror.

Over time, of course, we grow up. Episodes of comfort give rise to feelings of love and gratitude, and we come to realise that other people are not slaves but have their own feelings and wants. As Nussbaum argues, this involves “a move out of monarchy in the direction of democratic reciprocity.” The bulk of her book elaborates on three dangerous emotions that she identifies as secondary outcomes of primary infantile fear: anger, disgust and envy. America, she believes, has fallen victim to them all. Fear can hijack legitimate outrage and protest, transforming them into a “toxic desire for payback.” Fear also infuses disgust — the aversion to mortality and embodiment — with strategies of exclusion, subordination and hate crime. Envy, too, is at large, stoking animus within the nation and presenting necessary social cooperation as a zero-sum game.

All of these damaging emotions contribute to the toxic brew of sexism and misogyny. Hostility to women in the United States, she argues, is driven partly by fear-blame: some men fear that women have refused their traditional roles as helpmeet, have taken what’s “ours,” and need to be disciplined. It is driven by fear-disgust: some men experience anxiety about body fluids, birth and corporeality, leading to vilification. And it is driven by fear-envy: some men see the educational and employment successes of women as marginalising them and cutting them off from the good things in life.

Here we see the strengths of a study of political emotions: the clarity and precision of her definitions, the breadth of her scholarship spanning ancient and contemporary political philosophy, and the sensitive insights she brings to discussing the range of potential responses to these damaging emotional forces.

There is much here that is relevant to recent and future Australian politics. In particular her critique of the politics of envy as practised by both left and right has strong echoes in our partisan debates, where the right fantasises about latte-sipping elites, Indigenous entitlement and ABC conspiracies, while the left targets bankers and big business. Contemplating our electoral landscape, with its simplistic tax-cut-versus-tax-increase binary, Nussbaum’s warning about zero-sum politics has loud resonance.

A Goldwater libertarian as a teenager, and a young woman who progressively embraced the political ideals of the New Deal, the social inclusion of the performing arts, the social justice of Judaism and the commitment to inquiry and dialogue in a leading academic institution, Martha Nussbaum dispenses her critique in a non-partisan fashion and without attacking individuals.

Yet she recalls that election night in 2016 — when she was in Kyoto to receive her award from the Inamori Foundation — as a moment of anxiety, then alarm, and then grief and a deeper fear for the United States, its people and its institutions. The first draft of what became The Monarchy of Fear was written then and there, and published as a blog post, in Australia of all places, by Scott Stephens, editor of the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website. (More recently she has written another blog post for Stephens on the Brett Kavanaugh hearing.)

“We rarely think clearly when we are thinking about ourselves and our own immediate time,” Nussbaum explains. This is another reason why she does not mention the name of the president too often. Instead, she turns to the past, and especially to the classical past, where she finds “historical and literary examples that we can discuss together without partisan defensiveness.”

She is not the first to use the classics as a sort of safe zone in discussing politics; Shakespeare made a career of it. But Nussbaum has a particular skill in bringing to contemporary relevance the debates and insights of ancient philosophy and politics. Socrates appears, of course, with his commitment to the dialogic method and the merits of the “examined life,” as does Thucydides’s analysis of how populism and the rhetoric of fear helped undo the Athenian democracy.

There is Aeschylus, too, whose Oresteian tragedy Nussbaum sees as a depiction not just of the emergence of democracy and law in Athens but also of the transformation of the spirit of retribution. “Like modern democracies,” Nussbaum comments, “the ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem.” In the play, the “Furies” — animal embodiments of anger and vendetta — are transformed into the “Kindly Ones” (Eumenides). It is significant, she says, that they are not caged or banished, but given voice and a home beneath the Acropolis, where they serve as instruments of justice and human welfare.

Anger, in other words, should be resisted in a democracy because it leads to retribution; far better is the philosophy of non-violence or, as she puts it, “non-anger,” exemplified by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Like King, she separates the doer from the deed, denouncing the latter while recognising the former is always capable of growth and change.

But her favourite among the classics is Lucretius, the Roman philosopher-poet of the first century BC. Lucretius has been enjoying a bit of a revival, partly because of Stephen Greenblatt’s 2012 Pulitzer prize-winning The Swerve, which traces the accident of history that saw the sole surviving ancient copy of Lucretius’s remarkable De Rerum Natura saved from oblivion in the fifteenth century.

Lucretius informs much of Nussbaum’s argument about fear and envy. But there is a larger sense, too, in which she finds him of contemporary relevance and urgency. Living through “the beginning of the long decline of the Roman republic into tyranny,” Lucretius was an acolyte of Epicurus, and sought to explain his very Greek, pleasure-loving, emotions-based philosophy to his more rigid rational Roman contemporaries. The Romans, of course, tended to favour the detached denialism of Stoics like Cicero, Seneca and emperor-turned-meditator Marcus Aurelius.

In this endless and unresolvable debate between pleasure and denial, engagement and detachment, Nussbaum sides with Lucretius: “If you don’t have love for others, then the life of Stoic detachment or even cynical despair will make more sense than the life of hope, with its many demands.” A philosopher, that is, must love and be engaged in public life. •