Love in Times of Populism
Thoughts on Affect Theory
The fact that (also liberal) democracies are based on—indeed, require—emotions, feelings, and affects has already been adequately examined and theorized, although not without
controversy. Without passion(s), politics does not function, and democracy cannot be lived. And from this it also follows that feelings, passion, and affects cannot be regarded as the opposite of political decisions guided by rationality or reason, since what also then arises is the question of how it might be possible to deal with a rightwing populist mobilization of emotions, which aims at exclusion, with a “politics of feelings.” In this logic of exclusion, the “other” has to be disparaged, even debased, so that it can be marginalized and so that “one’s own” is consequently not only protected but able to come into being in the first place, through the gesture of differentiation and exclusion. Rightwing populist mobilization and agitation consequently make use of powerful feelings in order to make it possible to perceive, live, and experience the antagonism of “us” against the “others.” Throughout Europe, rightwing populist actors are transforming the fear of and the anger against the neoliberal state of things and the dismantling of social rights into a hate of “others.” The economy of emotions in majority society hence achieves a balance—however, at the expense of solidarity and, ultimately, of democracy, which is indeed based on acting together.
Is there then no place for love in neoliberal and rightwing populist times? If love can only be related to “one’s own”—to one’s family, circle of friends, and country, as rightwing populists suggest—and if desire is aimed primarily at one’s own advancement, as neoliberal discourse dictates, then shaping society in a democratic, emancipatory way is deprived of its foundation. Can love, if it is not understood in a bourgeois sense as a heterosexual way of life and exclusively for oneself or one’s partner but rather as a feeling of affection, empathy, and indeed openness, kindle a new desire for community and, ultimately, also for democracy? Can it infect fellow human beings, affect no longer wanting to live under antagonistic and exclusive conditions? Love can then, however, no longer be thought of as static but instead must be comprehended as a process, or perhaps more aptly as an intensity: as negotiating with people and encountering other people as equals. In this sense, love can, and indeed must, involve and facilitate conflict and discord.