From social theorist and psychotherapist Rabbi Michael Lerner comes a strategy for a new socialism built on love, kindness, and compassion for one another. Revolutionary Love proposes a method to replace what Lerner terms the “capitalist globalization of selfishness” with a globalization of generosity, prophetic empathy, and environmental sanity.
Lerner challenges liberal and progressive forces to move beyond often weak-kneed and visionless politics to build instead a movement that can reverse the environmental destructiveness and social injustice caused by the relentless pursuit of economic growth and profits. Revisiting the hidden injuries of class, Lerner shows that much of the suffering in our society—including most of its addictions and the growing embrace of right-wing nationalism and reactionary versions of fundamentalism—is driven by frustrated needs for community, love, respect, and connection to a higher purpose in life. Yet these needs are too often missing from liberal discourse. No matter that progressive programs are smartly constructed—they cannot be achieved unless they speak to the heart and address the pain so many people experience.
Liberals and progressives need coherent alternatives to capitalism, but previous visions of socialism do not address the yearning for anything beyond material benefits. Inspired by Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Carol Gilligan, Revolutionary Love offers a strategy to create the “Caring Society.” Lerner details how a civilization infused with love could put an end to global poverty, homelessness, and hunger, while democratizing the economy, shifting to a twenty-eight-hour work week, and saving the life-support system of Earth. He asks that we develop the courage to stop listening to those who tell us that fundamental social transformation is “unrealistic.”
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A World of Pain, a Hunger for Love
We live in a world whose people are in deep pain.
Some of this pain is a product of economic inequality. Approximately 842 million people suffer from hunger worldwide, and nine million people die of hunger each year. According to recent studies, over 10 percent of people in the world live on less than two dollars a day. In the United States, inequality has grown dramatically over the past four decades, ever since both political parties participated in gradually weakening the New Deal's social safety net that had been put in place during the 1930s and 1940s. In 2016, the richest 1 percent of families controlled a record-high 38.6 percent of the country's wealth, according to a Federal Reserve report published in November 2017. That's nearly twice as much as the bottom 90 percent of families, who now hold just 22.8 percent of the wealth, down from about 33 percent in 1989 when the federal government started tracking this statistic. And all this does make a difference. Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, writing in the February 2019 issue of Fortune magazine, reports that "the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans can now expect to live 10 to 15 years longer than the least well-off 1 percent.... Inequality not only denies the majority of Americans access to the material fruits of wealth; by denying them these resources it also denies them health."
Yet the pain I focus on in this book is often less obvious, though not unrelated to our global economic system. This pain is a result of a worldwide deprivation of love, generosity, respect, and community. People hunger deeply for a higher purpose in life than the search for material well-being, power, fame, and sexual conquest, and they feel real suffering when they are unable to find meaning either for themselves or within a community that puts these transcendent values above those that they encounter daily in the competitive marketplace and mass media. If we call the economic crisis of the 1930s the Great Depression and the economic crisis of 2007–2011 the Great Recession, then I suggest that this psychological and spiritual pain, which cripples billions of people worldwide, should be called the Great Deprivation.
The Great Deprivation may have begun as far back as the emergence of patriarchy and class society (in some cases, as long as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago) in the newly forming city-states in Mesopotamia, China, Greece, India, and elsewhere. Mythology and tribal collective memories preserve the notion that at an earlier point in human history people lived in groups that shared their resources in relatively equal ways. It took violence to coerce people into accepting inequalities to satisfy the lust and selfishness of the few. The subsequent development of patriarchal and class societies enshrined the notion that violence and inequality were natural, and that wars and oppression were built into the inescapable structure of human society and human nature. People began to lose their memories of a more cooperative and sharing way of life.
From the start of the Great Deprivation, however, people also found ways to hold on to their best ideals. Many communities remembered or evolved religious rituals that provided some relief from the increasingly exploitative realities of life and work. They built forms of resistance through beliefs in a world to come after their death (such as a heaven or hell) in which injustice would be overthrown. And even when, over time, religions were underminedby their subservience to the ruling elites who funded them, most people in both ancient and medieval times worked in outdoor rural settings that provided opportunities for direct and unmediated spiritual and transcendent experiences in nature.
But the use of violence to maintain unequal power in the newly imposed class and patriarchal societies required human beings to suppress more and more their inborn ability to see and directly experience the nobility and goodness of others, particularly those who were being dominated. The clerics, philosophers, teachers, poets, entertainers, and authors supported by the ruling classes, who dominate most societies past and present, produced both elite and mass cultures that justified the selfishness and emotional disconnection that would allow people to impose pain on others. Among these cultural systems, racism became one of the most effective, and it remains a central reality in contemporary politics.
The practice of enslaving human beings began in the ancient world, including forced marriages imposed on women or the conquest of one tribe by another in struggles to control land as agriculture emerged as an easier solution to getting a steady supply of food than had been available in hunter-gatherer societies. Enslaving others had become the new normal form of organization of society at least by the time of Sumer in Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago, spreading to European, African, and Asian societies (through a caste system in India and in the class structures of ancient China). Forms of slavery in Athens and then in Rome shaped the destinies of millions of people in the empires imposed on those whom the conquering elites called "barbarians" around what we'd now call the Middle East and much of Europe, and later evolved into feudal relations of subservience in which serfs became property of the landowners. As European, Muslim, and African societies sought to expand in power and land, the slave trade itself became a major economic foundation for the flourishing of European countries and their colonies in the Americas and Africa. As always, the exploiters sought todemean those whom they dominated, developing ways to avoid seeing the humanity of those they were enslaving (or, in the case of the indigenous peoples of North, Central, and South America, murdering them with impunity in large numbers). They did so in part to suppress their own more natural instinct to see the enslaved as human beings and hence treat them with respect and to teach their children to avoid having compassion for those being oppressed, recognitions that might have undermined the system that was otherwise providing them with some benefits.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who teaches in the African American Studies department at Princeton University, explains that "Racism in the U.S. has never been about abusing Black and Brown people just for the sake of doing so. It has always been a means by which the most powerful white men in the country have justified their rule, made their money, and kept the rest of us at bay. To that end, racism, capitalism, and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other."
Each new system of mistreatment has increased the Great Deprivation for all people, since all get taught to justify their participation by valuing various systems of material compensation and to ignore their loss of connection to any higher ethical purpose and meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr., underlined the need for a fundamental transformation when he wrote in his "Testament of Hope," in the weeks before his assassination, "America must change because twenty-three million black citizens will no longer live supinely in a wretched past. They have left the valley of despair; they have found strength in struggle. Joined by white allies, they will shake the prison walls until they fall. America must change."
Sadly, in the fifty-plus years since King's assassination, the huge energy of the civil rights movement has been focused on extending the benefits of civil rights legislation without giving equal energy to dismantling the racist consciousness so deeply ingrained in Western societies. Like so many liberal and progressive movements, the civil rights movement has focused on external change, like the integration of schools, without for instance, insisting that every school in America educate young people about racism to break down emotional distance and help children understand why so many societies used racism to prevent people from uniting against whatever system of oppression existed at the time. Affirmative action did bring African Americans and Latinos into work places and universities, and Barack Obama's presidency gave some the illusion that equality had finally been achieved. But it was an illusion: the failure to focus on dismantling racist assumptions, even about the legitimacy of affirmative action, left an opening for the Right. Racist forces soon mobilized, first in the white racist Tea Party and eventually in the national leadership of the Republican Party which, in its quest for a sustainable path to national political power after decades of relative powerlessness in the shadow of the New Deal, had adopted what aides to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan termed a Southern Strategy (catering to the legacy of slavery and segregation while pretending in northern states that they still sought to honor notions of equality for minority groups). With the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009 (and later, the growing power of Trumpists), this pretense was being abandoned while the Obama administration — and the mainstream of the Democratic Party, which followed Obama's lead — worried that the resurgent racism would be strengthened if it was openly confronted, and hence did little either through legislation in its first two years in power, or through executive orders and effective use of its bully pulpit, to help white working people understand why racism actually worked against their interests.
The emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in response to ongoing assaults on African Americans — particularly murders of blacks by police, who regularly are not held accountable — has been a hopeful sign that a new generation would no longer be satisfied with (usually unfulfilled) promises of economic mobility alone. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor declares, "The day to day struggles in which many people are engaged today must be connected to a much larger vision of what a different world could look like."
For me, this call echoes Malcolm X's universalist vision, which grew out of his conversion to Islam. It took a different form yet rang with the same universalist aspirations when it was articulated to me by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale when I met with them to try to bring the Peace and Freedom and the Black Panther parties into alliance in 1968. What made Malcolm X, and after his assassination, the Black Panthers, so dangerous to America's ruling elites was precisely their combination of passionate advocacy for their own African American community linked to a universal vision that could speak to the needs of both middle income and working class whites, inviting a solidarity that could effectively challenge not only racism but classism. Huey Newton explicitly used these terms in our discussion and I later experienced the solidarity enabled by such a universalist consciousness when the Panthers sent word to their followers at the Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary to ally with me and provide protection against white nationalist extremists who sought to attack me while I was incarcerated as one of the Seattle Seven (for contempt of court, a charge later overturned by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court).
That same universalist consciousness led me to bring members of Tikkun magazine's interfaith and secular-humanist–welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives to show up in solidarity at African American churches around the United States on Sundays after the murder of African Americans; and it led many pastors who appreciated that symbolic act to show up in return when eleven Jews were massacred in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a white nationalist supremacist in October 2018. This kind of solidarity for victims of racist violence has been repeated in many churches, synagogues, and mosques whenever such atrocities occur.
We cannot get to the world we need without sustained attention to the roots of racism, sexism, and class domination. Each of these systems is fortified not only by economic and political inequalities but by a system of emotional and spiritual deprivation. A great mistake of liberal and progressive forces is their tendency to direct their righteous indignation about systems of oppression not only toward those who have the greatest wealth and power, but also at anyone who they believe is materially benefiting from systemic injustice, no matter how slight those material benefits really are (in the United States, the target then becomes all whites and all men). To achieve the transformation of American and global politics our world needs, while continuing the struggle against every form of inequality and oppression, equal attention must be focused on how much racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and classism continue to produce a huge loss in the quality of almost everyone's lives, including the lives of most whites and most men, on how much we are losing as the global environmental crisis deepens, and on how much we would benefit from a society based on repairing the Great Deprivation with revolutionary love. Much of this and the next three chapters illuminate this claim.
WHAT IS REVOLUTIONARY LOVE?
Revolutionary love is the love of life and all beings, embracing this world with all its complexities, heartaches, and joys. It is an approach that is respectful and caring toward everyone on the planet, even those whose behavior we hope will change, and toward the Earth in all its magnificent diversity as well. It is recognizing oneself and all others as part of the fundamental unity of all being — and caring for the welfare of every part of that unity. It is transcending one's own narrow self-interest to experience others as manifestations of the sacred, and recognizing that a world where all are treated with respect and nurturance, both material and emotional, is in fact in one's own self-interest as well. It is finding meaning in one's life through relieving the pain and suffering of others, and joining with them in joyous and mutually nourishing relationships.
We see this kind of love again and again in heroic actions throughout the world. People running into the collapsing World Trade Center to help others escape. People jumping into flooding waters to save people, and even animals, from drowning. People chaining themselves to trees to protect forests from the devastation of logging. Native Americans and their allies facing freezing water hoses, rubber bullets, and arrest as they joined together at Standing Rock to demand that oil companies and big banks halt the laying of environmentally destructive pipelines and the fracking that is destroying significant sections of North America. It is joining with these indigenous peoples in demanding that banks and investment companies stop funding the extraction and use of fossil fuels and instead only fund development of alternative sources of energy like the wind and the sun to run our transportation systems, our communication systems, and our agricultural systems.
Revolutionary love affirms what we experience in personal family and romantic love, deeply values that kind of love, and yet moves beyond these personal experiences to an affirmation of the unity of all humanity and a genuine caring for all sentient life. Revolutionary love is closer to love as understood in the Torah's commands to "love the Other/the stranger as yourself" (Leviticus 19: 33–34) and to "love your neighbor as yourself."
It may seem overwhelming to make oneself so vulnerable to the needs of so many others. Yet caring for others often renews us. And we can act in ways that affirm their sanctity and preciousness, and we can build an economic and political system that embodies and sustains that kind of universal caring. Doing so will involve creating larger periods of open time in our lives, in part through a decrease in the hours spent at work, so that we may transcend our customary goal-directed activities — the driven consciousness fostered by a world of material scarcity — and instead aim to create a world in which people spend more time inhabiting states of playfulness, creativity, and joyful celebration. Rather than manifesting only in a long-term relationship with a spouse, partner, or friend, revolutionary love also manifests in an ever-growing consciousness that finds joy in learning about each other and our world through science, literature, art, music, religion, and dance. It expands through genuine caring for the Earth combined with awe at the mysteries of consciousness and being itself, whether addressed through art and music, philosophy, religion, psychedelics, or other sources that lead to an awakening to the necessity of sharing, cooperation, generosity, humility, and joyful celebration of life.
Revolutionary love repudiates domination, instead cultivating a fervent commitment to healing ourselves and others, to ending psychological as well as physical suffering, and to fostering the values of nonviolence so eloquently articulated by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It recognizes hurtful behaviors — such as violence; hoarding and consumption beyond any physical hunger or survival need; or the endless search for more power, more possessions, more sexual conquests, and more obedience from others — as evidence of an absence of real connection with others. All these are manifestations of an intense cry from within that has been stifled and misdirected into destructive paths, leading to war and exploitation of others and of the planet.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Revolutionary Love"
Copyright © 2019 Michael Lerner.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Part I. Transcending the crippling dynamics of oppression
1. A World of Pain, a Hunger for Love
2. Fear and Domination, or Love and Generosity?
3. Toxic Self-Blaming and Powerlessness
4. To Change a Society, You Must Respect Its People
Part II. Strategies for building the caring society
5. Overcoming the Dictatorship of the Capitalist Marketplace
6. Major Institutional Changes for Building a Love and Justice Movement
7. The Caring Society in the Twenty-Second Century