The Ties that Bind

Rational policy alone can’t hold communities together, or make them good

Passion is a curious thing. In the modern world, if one speaks of passion, undoubtedly the first thing that comes to mind is erotic entanglement. My undergraduate students understand passion as irremediably tied to sex and intimate relations, and they regard it as irrational, disruptive and profoundly unpolitical. There are some accounts by political thinkers that would back them up on this. Insofar as passion is tied to love, and not merely bodily lust, the 20th-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that “love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others,” and hence, is “perhaps the most powerful of antipolitical forces.” Rebecca Kingston disagrees. In Public Passion: Rethinking the Grounds for Political Justice, she argues, contra Hannah Arendt, that passion may be at the heart of political forces. Public Passion requires some suspension of the conventional opinions in our highly individualistic culture about passion and love, but, as in any engagement with a serious and challenging work in political and philosophical thought, we learn things we had forgotten.

Kingston’s project is one of recovering a lost tradition that may aid us in healing some of the ailments of modern liberal democratic discourse. More specifically, Kingston is concerned with the overly rationalistic accounts of political engagement that have dominated the discourse in liberal democracies, accounts that she believes have failed to take stock of how we actually behave. In her chapter on 17th- and 18th-century debates in political theory, Kingston summarizes the contribution of the thinkers of that time to a general consensus that “rational norms have become the only possible basis for understanding the creation and shaping of political community.” Since the 17th century, in western societies, a dominant motif in political thinking has rested upon the conviction that autonomous, self-seeking individuals employ a calculating kind of reason in order to maximize their self-interest. One can look back to Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes (as Kingston does) as benchmarks for this hugely influential way of thinking about politics. We see the legacy of this rationalism even in the more morally palatable modern political theories that suggest good judgement requires a repression of all emotion. There are many who believe that a just standpoint requires detachment, objective assessment and removing oneself from any emotive or passionate attachment to the subject one is assessing (isn’t this in fact at the very core of our understanding of law?). Kingston attributes this preference for rational detachment on moral questions to what she calls “hard-core Kantianism,” referring to the 18th-century political thinker Immanuel Kant, who famously argued that one’s duties ought to be completely separated from one’s desires. Kant’s preoccupation with duty distances him from some other rationality types (like Hobbes) who believed that people make decisions based on a cold calculation of their own self-­interest. Nevertheless, there is a common ground here in these modern political thinkers, who believed that justice and political order require that we steer away from our passions and desires, and rely upon detached reason for political consensus.

Kingston questions whether the rationality-based view of politics in liberal democratic societies really can account for what holds us together as citizens in a common project. We may think it does, and this may be why some of us are committed to exporting our universal rationality to each and every corner of the globe, but Kingston’s investigations of the emotive ties that bind citizens makes us question the advisability of this project. It may take more than good rules to make a good state. It may take what Kingston calls an emotional affect, and consideration of how it is “cultivated, desired, or shared among citizens of a regime,” to promote a particular kind of justice.

A good chunk of Kingston’s book is preoccupied with the classical Greek tradition, specifically a look at Plato and Aristotle, the founding fathers of western political thought, as she forages for the original connections between political order and the passions. Unlike most modern political thinkers, who detached calculative reason from the supposedly less attractive elements of being human, these ancient philosophers understood human beings as integrated psyches, composed of appetites (food, drink, sex), passions (fear, honour, love) and reason. They also understood that political communities have to take account of this integration, and of the many ways in which the balance among these three aspects can go awry. People can have bad lives if their appetites dominate their judgements (too much attention to food is not a good way to order one’s life, nor is indiscriminate sex), if their passions consistently overwhelm them (think of the guy who consistently picks fights in a bar, or the agoraphobic who cannot step outside because of generalized fear, or the person whose principal ambition is the “honour” of the corner office), and even if they are excessively rationalistic (a person who betrays a friend for an abstract loyalty to justice is suspect).

One insight that Kingston takes from the ancients is critical to her argument about public passion: regimes tend to reflect in their power structures the dominant type of passion present in the people who inhabit that regime. The “classical view” of the role of emotions in politics “involves an acknowledgement that the majority of individuals will live in political communities that are not perfect and not organized to maximize the highest possible human goods. Instead, the groups who hold most power in any given political community will define the dominant qualities of the regime.” For example we find some states organized around dominant concepts of honour (think militaristic states), some around greed (the excessive consumption of contemporary liberal democracies?) and some around fear (tyrannies). But we also find states that reflect a better alignment of appetites, passions and reason, and these are the ones ultimately that Kingston wants to defend through her theory of “public passion.”

What do the good states look like, and what are the specific passions upon which they rest? Aristotle thought that healthy citizenship required a sort of friendship among those who shared a state, a “like-mindedness” that “distinguish[es] a political state from a mere aggregation.” As Kingston explains, this like-mindedness does not mean that citizens share the same opinions about everything, nor does it mean the suspension of conflict, but it does mean that they share in a scheme of justice to which they assent. While reason clearly is involved in setting out the rules of justice, “the content of justice, as signifying what goods will be honoured and distributed in political community … will always in part be constituted by the appetitive as well as the emotional attachments and desires of human beings.” It is possible, according to Kingston, to cultivate a passion for justice.

To understand how, in the modern world, we get to an emotive attachment to democratic friendship, Kingston turns to Montesquieu, the French 18th-century constitutionalist and an old favourite of hers. Montesquieu resurrects some of the emotive affect of the ancient Greeks, and certainly breaks from his contemporary rationalist counterparts in the attention that he gives to fear, honour and love in politics. For Montesquieu, love is the passion specifically attached to republics, but as Kingston explains, the love of one’s republic requires a leap from the love of self. Montesquieu wants us to cultivate a love of the free republic, a kind of love that Kingston refines as “a means through which an awareness of both the distinctiveness of citizens one from the other, as well as their common embeddedness in a shared liberal democratic political order” can cement citizen loyalties. This kind of love “is not the intense form of passion that subsumes and overtakes all sense of self,” but rather, a “love in attunement and openness to transformation without necessarily capitulation.”

Drawing upon the legacy of the ancient Greeks and Montesquieu’s depiction of republican love, in the final chapters Kingston maps out how she believes that we can benefit from thinking about political passion as the glue of our own contemporary political community. Public passion may always include a desire to belong, and it thus may be the case that citizens in modern liberal democracies may “first acquire a sense of political justice emotively.” In a footnote, Kingston declares that she believes that liberal democracy demonstrates a “particular sensitivity to the suffering of other groups of citizens.” In keeping with the teachings of the classical philosophers, we do not understand public passions as crude emotions, but rather as complex combinations of appetites, longings and reasons. It is possible, in Canada, for example, that public passion may well include a number of elements, including “the relative subjective well-being of all,” the recognition of the importance of individual freedom and the possibility of “furthering a common political project.” In this reading of Canada, it could be said that we have a public passion for a combination of individual and collective goods, underscored by sensitivity to “otherness” manifested in our multicultural policies.

Public Passion’s important contribution to debates about citizenship and belonging in a globalized world is its persuasive account of why we live in states, with particular identities. The book resurrects politics as an area of investigation that is discrete from the emphasis upon individual rights, group identities in ethnic association and cosmopolitan sentiments. The book is beautifully and carefully written, with extensive explanatory footnotes and references to scholarship, which makes it a good read for two types: general readers (who can ignore the references) and scholars (who want to know where Kingston gets her information). Kingston, in going back to the ancient idea of the polis, makes us think about how it is possible for people to become habituated to the emotional attachment to a regime, and its embedded understanding of justice. Kingston anticipates her two sets of critics: those who eschew state identity for a more universal view of humanity and those who want to defend cultural plurality and who are fearful of the homogenizing effects of political identity. She makes a persuasive argument that “real geographic and linguistic barriers make the universal sharing of emotion inconceivable,” and even though Kingston does not herself draw out the full implications of this statement, it is clear from the argument of her book that since emotion is an integral part of common justice, any borderless political ideal is questionable. As for the defence of cultural particularity, the case of Canada seems to stand for Kingston as a model for incorporating difference within unity. In “well-functioning multicultural societies,” she writes, “one sees attempts to develop general presumptions among citizens that diversity in ways of life and in moral and religious commitments is a desirable thing.”

For us Canadians, the book is especially illuminating in the debates about national identity. Yes, it may be the case that despite all our differences of geography, language and ethnicity, and our individually distinct states of virtue (most of us come up short on the yardstick measuring generosity, courage, etc.), we share in a like-mindedness that makes us want to be fair. It is possible that this Canadian-ness is an affect, not a rationally calculated set of goods. Kingston has persuaded me of this.

My question though is: is our Canadianness a passion? When one thinks of public passion, one is likely to think of the violent eruptions of the French Revolution, or the throngs of resisters in the Arab Spring which are outside the ordinary work of politics. Can we get beyond our conviction that passion of any kind is inflamed? This review opened with a citation from Hannah Arendt, claiming that the passion of love is a politics-destroying emotion, because the intensity of the love bond suspends the world in the exclusionary quality of the relationship. Kingston’s invocation of republican love, through Montesquieu, is a tempered emotion underscored by “a deep commitment to equality” and a “reflection of the worthiness of the other and of what the other offers for the redefining of the self.” I wish that all love could be as even-handed, as generous and as egalitarian. I come back to my students, though, who almost universally regard passionate love as dangerous, disruptive and possibly slavish. Passionate love can make you crazy, not moderate and kind. I have no quarrel with Kingston’s claim that a kind of like-mindedness, grounded in a shared affect, is at the heart of politics, and I think her book is a marvellous antidote to the excessively rational accounts of politics against which she is writing. But going back to the classical identification between the emotional commitments of individuals and the type of regime they constitute, I find it hard to reconcile individual passionate love with the sort of love that Kingston wants to identify as the basis of good politics. I am just not sure that the emotional affect of like-mindedness can ever be squared with the tempest of passion.