Passions and Politics - Paul Ginsborg - ebook

Passions and Politics ebook

Paul Ginsborg

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The dominant model of democratic politics emphasizes reason at the expense of the passions. Passions have been treated as dangerous, the opposite of reason and the enemy of virtue. Paul Ginsborg and Sergio Labate challenge this model and put forward a very different view, developing an account of modern democratic politics in which both passions and reason play a crucial role. To do justice to the role of passions in politics, we must pay close attention to the way in which they circulate among us; then we must develop a suitable language to describe them - an 'alphabet of the passions' that enables us to understand how they combine with one another and connect with certain states of mind in order to shape political outcomes. Adopting this approach enables the authors to shed new light on one of the major phenomena of our time - the triumph of neoliberalism on a world scale. Neoliberalism has worked so well because it has incorporated its own romantic and individualist version of the passions into its worldview, seducing both individuals and families with the allure of consumption. By developing a new model of democratic politics based on the interplay of passions and reason, Ginsborg and Labate provide a much needed framework for understanding the crucial role that passions play in the unfolding of political life. At a time when populist leaders are on the ascendancy and political processes are shaped as much by anger, resentment and fear as they are by reason and argument, this refocusing of political analysis on the role of the passions could not be more timely.

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Front Matter




Boys, girls and a dog in front of Vinca Cemetery

The seductive power of neoliberal passions


1. The Debate on Passions

The ancient history of passions

Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza

Passions’ active function: Feminism

Governing and combining passions


2. Political Romanticism and Neoliberal Romanticism

Political romanticism

Consumer capitalism and neoliberal romanticism

Mobilising passions


3. Politics and Passions, Today

Constitutional wisdom

Machiavellian monkeys

The dignity of the politician

The double crisis of passions: Representation and participation



4. Familial Passions and the Passion for the State

Familial love

Passions for the family and the failure of republican pedagogy in Italy

In reverse






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Table of Contents

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Passions and Politics

Paul GinsborgSergio Labate

Translated by David Broder


First published in Italian as Passioni e politica © Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Turin, 2016

This English edition copyright © Paul Ginsborg and Sergio Labate, 2019

The authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution of the University of Macerata to the translation costs of this work.

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press101 Station LandingSuite 300Medford, MA 02155, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-3276-6

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website:

To Daniele, who comes from Vinca


This short book is the fruit of dialogue and collaboration between a historian and a philosopher (both of whom seem to have emerged miraculously unscathed from the experience). They assume a shared responsibility for the whole text. It being the convention to attribute particular parts of the book to individual authors, pp. 1–14, 31–51, 95–120 can be attributed to Paul Ginsborg and pp. 15–30, 52–94, 121–6 to Sergio Labate.

Lastly, we would like to thank Chiara Stefani for her valuable help in preparing this text.

Paul Ginsborg and Sergio Labate

28 February 2016


Boys, girls and a dog in front of Vinca Cemetery

August bank holiday 2015, in a village in the Apuan Alps. In the summer of 1944 Vinca was one of the small Tuscan settlements to be most tragically hit by the SS death squads, actively supported by the local Fascist milizia from Carrara. They shot around 170 people, most of them women and children, over the three days between 24 and 26 August. The Nazi-fascists packed twenty-nine women and their children into a little sheep pen called Il Mandrione. Insensitive to the cries, the begging and the tears of their victims, they gunned down every one of them.

Seventy-one years later, the village was full of people. This was quite a rare occurrence, given that small settlements like Vinca have suffered a second, demographic death – obviously a less terrible death than that inflicted by the SS, but a no less lethal one.1 Visitors of Vinchese extraction come back to spend the weekend in houses that are left abandoned from one August to the next, former homes of the families who left the village in the years following the massacre. They come in their cars, many of them black and shiny vehicles with chrome wheelrims, rather too big for the size of the village itself. An occasional flash of wealth, if a modest one. There’s quite a hubbub; on the church square people are playing tombola and a group of drunken male youth tell anyone within earshot that they need to ‘have a piss’. All this seems quite normal; or is it?

Heading away from the medieval centre of the village, we come across a quite different scene. Five or six youngsters of both sexes are sitting in the lane in front of the cemetery. They are very young, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old, and probably still in school. There is a big dog with them, tame and affectionate, with its paw in one of the girls’ hands. This is a relaxed, tranquil group, set apart. We say hello and say how much we like the dog, which they are rather pleased about; but we don’t stop to chat. Only later do we wish that we had done so. It would have been nice to ask them what they were doing, whether they had perhaps a grandmother or great-grandmother killed in the massacre, whether they thought that the passions that led to that act of unspeakable cruelty – first and foremost, the hatred and disdain for human life – could reappear, as history suggests. Who knows whether the kids in front of the gates of Vinca Cemetery, and all those like them, are aware of the great threats that loom over us like black clouds, the first signs of a storm ready to wipe out our civic coexistence and our democracy. Thinking back to that group, tender and reflective to all appearances, there comes to mind another group – the Turin youth who were to join the anti-fascist Resistance of the Second World War. Natalia Ginzburg recalled how at a certain point her young friends saw their school buildings, the city squares and the regime’s rhetoric in a completely different light:

The words patria and Italia, which we had found nauseating within school walls because they were always accompanied by the adjective ‘fascist’, because they were pumped up with emptiness, suddenly appeared to us without adjectives, and so transformed that it seemed that we were hearing and thinking them for the first time.2

We can compare the two groups of youngsters, from Turin and from Vinca. Some of the former were destined to become famous, while the latter were unknown and partly imaginary; the former were typical children of the twentieth century, the latter of the twenty-first. But this comparison sparks the following burning question. How can we ensure that small groups like these will not bend their culture and intelligence to convention and prejudice, but will instead celebrate diversity? Will they have the necessary ability and preparedness to connect with other, wider groups, but also with smaller ones, mere family groups?

Paradoxically, it was easier to connect with one another in the dramatic years of Natalia Ginzburg’s youth than in it is in our own time; for, just like the photographs, the options of that era were expressed in black and white. The situation under neoliberalism is very different. Neoliberalism, the dominant ideology of the present, is driven by consumerist passions. It projects an enfeebled imitation of democracy. It seems to make all of us into consenting victims of its own power. The growth of this diffuse inability to feel alternative passions is one of the key themes in this book. Our text is motivated by a concern for politics itself; for politics’ only remaining strength seems to be its power to disconnect rather than to construct shared passions that are able to react to the dissatisfaction over the present state of things. To resist by ourselves is no simple feat.

Despite the difficulties, we urgently need to encourage new connections and enable small, secluded groups to do more than passively submit to the choices posed by the dominant ideology. A new beginning demands new tools, because there is no point in repeating the same old rituals from the past.

This short book hopes to be such a tool. It concentrates above all on passions: not only base ones like hatred, anger and the desire to destroy whatever is different from oneself – passions so horribly unleashed in the Vinca massacre – but also higher passions, such as love, tenderness and compassion. Above all, it investigates the connection between passions and politics. It is unusual to see these two being connected – and passions and democracy even more so. But, if we question what the emotional life of a democracy could be, we see that a new field of reflection emerges. Of course, we do not deny that this is a complex world, but also one extremely useful to deal with – or so we hope, for all those small groups that are now growing and resolved to build something new, but not in the old way.3

The seductive power of neoliberal passions

Let us set our reflection within the context of the prevalent economic system of our time, namely neoliberalism. In our view, it cannot be treated just as a simple economic and political ideology. Rather, we maintain that it has such reach and influence that it pervades our everyday existence, our material and cultural consumption, our passions and our choices. We hold, moreover, that a new beginning must necessarily be laid down in discontinuity with all this.

We do not want to give in to the temptation to point to neoliberalism as the cause of all evils and all the crises that are now underway. This is too complex a historical phenomenon to be simply reduced to a single mechanism of oppression. Above all, we ought not underestimate the variety of neoliberalism’s expressions or reduce it to a sequence in which an essential phenomenon comes first and then all the others, as its immediate consequences. For example, for an economist it would be tempting to believe that neoliberalism is fundamentally a process reorganising society’s economic structures and that all the other consequences – political, anthropological, social, ethical, cultural – are inevitable corollaries of this same reorganisation. Similarly, for scholars of politics, the essence of neoliberalism is to be found in the transformation of political institutions and their sovereignty and, for philosophers, in a specific model of social rationality.

These are all parts of the truth. But they are also typical – each in its own way, of course – not just of neoliberalism but all of capitalism’s historical phases. It is not new for the economy to tend to swallow up all the dimensions of society, changing its structures in the direction of increasing inequality. Nor is it new for capitalism to show an always more direct intolerance of democracy. Why, then, are all these tendencies, more or less present over the history of the last two decades, being realised with ruthlessness right now, without meeting obstacles or prompting too much indignation – if only in a spontaneous or, on the contrary, elitist form – and in the absence of a well-organised political and democratic front of conflict (a conflict that in fact explodes in the form of war)?

Our answer is that the factor that has contributed to this development in neoliberalism, making it an era in which capitalism advances without being held back by any politically well-organised conflict, is above all the imposition of a unique governance of the passions. Its secret, underhand weapon is the ability to reap the benefits of a slow taming of our hearts, by now inexorably attracted to neoliberal passions. It is difficult indeed to subvert a system that has so effectively perfected its self-defence mechanisms through the seductive embrace of consumption and through control over our passions. Democratic electoral contests are now unable to release us from the system’s iron grip – contests organised by a handful of people, with the help of larger and larger economic resources and through a rigid control of media that are increasingly wanting in ideas and devoid of pluralism. And even the politicians who come forth with the best of intentions end up being knocked back to the place they came from.

It is at this basic level that neoliberal government uses our passions. After all, we don’t choose our passions; nor are they rational or completely free. They are called ‘passions’ also because we are in some sense forced to suffer* them. We might ask why most people accept policies that they would have collectively rejected once; why they think that the restriction of a good part of their own rights is something necessary or that it is natural to introduce a principle of competition even into the spaces inhabited by our children. And one uncomfortable but sincere answer could be: because we want to compete, we want to get rich, we want to become entrepreneurs of our own selves. The relationship between control over passions and neutralisation of politics in the neoliberal era helps to draw attention to an evident and decisive fact: ‘neoliberalism’ does not simply describe an era of history, an imbalance of the political order, an unequal recomposition of the economic classes. Its specificity also involves a form of governance over our private lives. It thus transgresses our habit of still ordering the discourse according to ancient dualisms of public–private, social–political, and so on.

This is one of neoliberalism’s most powerful and most underhand weapons. It is a sort of ‘Trojan horse’ that insinuates itself even inside our attempts to mount a political opposition to the present system of domination. The fact that it has changed our private lives by politically reshaping the objective conditions of our existence – our education, our working life, our sphere of consumption – has also had obvious consequences for the prevalent political expectations and behaviours. It is as if all this had imposed a hegemonic ethics in which certain passions prevail over others. The way in which we engage in politics, become enthused over it or lose confidence in it seems to correspond to this hegemonic model. If even our political language and behaviour – and the common decisions that can result from them – are conditioned by passions whose driving force is not subjected to a regime of critique or consciousness, or even simply care, it will be very tough to develop political responses able to cope with the historical challenge of neoliberalism.

Moreover, this is a bitter experience, common to many people who have engaged in politics in recent years. How many attempts at building collective subjects have been foiled by some vice of passion, by an excess of selfishness or arrogance? Far more than in the case of idealistic motivations, the lack of success of these ones is much more often caused by competition among prima donnas, by an identification with the leader that ends up in a kind of voluntary servitude, by a struggle whose goal is the inflation of one’s own vanity and power, by a sly diffidence displayed even towards one’s own comrades, which often eventually transforms the agreement we need into mere antipathy. It is as if we sought to challenge the neoliberal order by deploying its own most effective weapons.

Here we want to point out briefly some of the elements that make up the backbone of our argument and proposals. Obviously the dominant subject here is passions. Historically, the sphere of rationality and the sphere of passions have always been separate: the triumph of reason against the weakness of sentiment, raison d’état against political romanticism, responsible male wisdom against female irrationality. We refuse to believe that a politics’ effectiveness is directly proportional to its being immune to passions. Some justify the bid to shake off the effects of our passions on politics by invoking the latter’s necessary realism; but we believe that this move has fed an underestimation of the sly governance of the passions that has imposed itself with consumer capitalism, whose fruits neoliberalism harvests. As we shall show over the next few pages, in the face of neoliberal romanticism, political realism is a blunt weapon. This is why we urgently need to try to understand our own passions, so that we can work together. We need to catalogue our passions (without falling into a sterile ennumeration of them) and to identify the ones that offer the maximum potential for democracy. As we do so, we should fight the entrenched tendency to leave the field unexplored. And we should not forget two things above all.

First, passions are always ambiguous. Even positive ones – compassion, inclusion, love – are capable of trickery and chicanery. As we shall see, precisely what characterises the present model is an ideological use of positive passions. They mostly serve to sweeten the pill of the brutal effects of economic and political decisions that concern our everyday lives. Their use serves not to strengthen the spaces of political critique but to anaesthetise them.

Secondly, the real difference between a critical and an ideological use of passions in the political sphere lies not so much in the distinction between positive or negative, happy or sad passions as in the distinction between passions that push towards a purely individual satisfaction and passions whose goal is the desire to build connections – that is, in the distinction between passions without connection and shared passions. The point of this book is not to idealise the passions. Rather we need to imagine how passions could be governed politically, with a view to uniting what, in the contemporary era, is instead constantly separated. We can also read the crisis of politics in these terms. There is almost a prohibition against common passions, which leaves us structurally incapable of elevating our individual malaise to the rank of political conflict – of transforming our legitimate need for individual recognition into a desire shared by all.

If our enquiry concentrates above all on the nature and use of passions in the political field, the second subject of constant reflection throughout this book is the state of democracy. Its multiple deficiencies in an age of grave crisis such as the one we live today are a common problem. In our view, the rebirth of democracy is necessarily linked to its capacity to develop a new affectivity and new passions.

Our goal is to help to redefine modern democratic politics. We intend to do this not only by analysing the historically given separation between the political space and the space of political virtues, but also by taking into consideration new aspects and new scenarios, which are normally detached from democratic debate. We want to demonstrate that democracy, as it is exercised today (through a representative system that has come under suspicion and that is characterised by serious imbalances and iniquities), is dragging politics into discredit; and that working on the contamination of our passions by neoliberalism can contribute (or so we intend) to strengthening the hope in collective groups that should be credible enough to set up at last a dam against the present drift. Our intention is not, then, to limit ourselves to pointing out for the umpteenth time how powerful the destructive charge of neoliberalism really is. Rather, we want to find our way back to a wellspring of affects that is still based on democratic culture and is able to oppose neoliberalism in a positive manner.

We want to respond to the following questions: How decisive is the development of an emotional wisdom to the quality of our political engagement? Which passions can obstruct a political project from turning out well, and which ones can help it succeed? These questions are not just a stylistic exercise; they are fundamental, if we are finally going to be able to set credible political processes in motion again.

One often ignored sphere in which the tension between passions and politics plays out is the family. As we shall see, it is far from being the case that love for one’s family goes hand in hand with political virtues. If we are going to rethink the usefulness of the passions, both for public life and for our private lives, we need to unravel the key problem of the connection (or lack of it) between the family and the democratic state.

We realise how complex these questions are and make no pretence to be doing more than to draw attention to them. As Adorno suggests, reflection on the political organisation of the world is today closely bound up with a greater awareness of our own moral sphere: of the passions, the values, the behaviours that we choose or reject.4

Could it be that neoliberal men and women have the cultural and emotional formation to be able to oppose neoliberal policies? We think not.



See A. Tarpino,

Geografie della memoria: Case, rovine, oggetti quotidiani

, Einaudi, Turin 2008.


N. Ginzburg, ‘Prefazione’, in G. Falaschi (ed.),

La letteratura partigiana in Italia, 1943–1945

, Editori Uniti, Rome 1984, p. 8.


For a masterly introduction to the world of contemporary politics, see J. Dunn,

The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics

, HarperCollins, London 2000.


‘Anything that we can call morality today merges into the question of the organization of the world … we might even say that the quest for the good life is the quest for the right form of politics, if indeed such a right form of politics lay within the realm of what can be achieved today.’ Quoted in Judith Butler, ‘Can one lead a good life in a bad life?’,

Radical Philosophy

176 (2012), p. 10.


In Italian both the verb


(‘endure, suffer’) and the noun


(‘passion’) derive from the same etymon – the Latin

patior, pati, passus sum

(‘bear, undergo, suffer’).

1The Debate on Passions

The ancient history of passions

Until today the term ‘passions’ has been used in a generic sense. We might say that passions were defined on the basis of their supposed opposite, reason. Now it is time to identify them with greater precision and trace their individual development in terms of meaning and use, especially if we want to find out how they can positively influence modern politics. Clearly, we cannot hope to cover exhaustively a theme of such long historical tradition or aspire to provide a complete typology of passions. Our aim is rather to construct an analytical method that may contribute to reinstating the passions at the centre of the political sphere.

Faced with such a difficult task, we may perhaps be forgiven for intoning the refrain of an old Beatles song: ‘All you need is love, love, love’. Without doubt we need love; but love is not enough by itself, nor is it free of ambiguities, as we shall see.

When we start to list the main denominators of our