Hope and fear

Political

‘Hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of men’ – Nietzsche

‘not to laugh at human actions, or mourn them, or curse them, but only to understand them’ – Spinoza

 

The ancient Greeks disliked hope. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes it as a form of wishful thinking indulged in at immense personal risk and cost. ‘Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources’ he writes, but ‘those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined’.

The election has been terrible news for many of us. The reaction among friends and relatives has been like Brexit in fact – stunned, anger, despair. I’ve heard lots of blame of the working class; of the English and their racism; of the world outside of London; of human nature. On the vocal Left, which by no means represents all the Left, let alone the wider range of public opinion on politics, that this is a result of a media stitch-up; or quisling centrist commentators; that the party should’ve pushed for Brexit, or instead harder for Remain.

There’s something in these positions, but all miss the mark in my view. It was clear from researching what became Island Story five years ago that there was a very wide gulf between London and the rest of England and Wales. London is the site of all economic, cultural and political power. It has long imposed decisions on the rest of the country which have been resented. To blame the world outside London, or England, reinforces the problem. To blame people for not ‘understanding’ Corbyn is similar. While ideology in the final part explains this election result better than any economic factor, the supposition of false consciousness on the part of the voters is arrogant and deluded.

Because in the final part, for many of the voters who mattered for Labour, this was about the credibility of Corbyn. While many will blame the right-wing press, this credibility had been undermined by his dithering on Brexit and failure to appropriately deal with anti-Semitism in the party, at least going 18 months back. Then, of course, about Brexit and bringing a decisive end to three years of a deeply frustrating deadlock. When the bodies are counted later, these two factors have to be prioritised. The tragedy is that the NHS and the social fabric of the UK will unravel at an increasing rate for the next five years.

One of the common findings of the Island Story work, which the book generally under-reported and avoided discussing because of its disquieting and inconvenient nature, was how immigration dominated most discussions of place and politics all across the country. This had an obvious bearing on the Brexit vote, even if it was one among several factors (Danny Dorling’s research rightly shows that, with Brexit at least, and I would say this result, the drivers were the more affluent middle classes, who make up the majority of the Conservative vote). In the perceptive election coverage of Patrick Kingsley in the New York Times came this insight from Shirebrook, where a massive Sports Direct factory has been built over a former pit:

‘Most residents refused to work in such a degrading environment, so the jobs are largely taken by people from poorer parts of the European Union. In the local consciousness, the concept of regional decline became fused with that of European immigration, instead of neoliberal economics.’

As we’ll know, Dennis Skinner has just lost his seat there to the Tories – a staggering loss (so too Laura Pidcock). But as we’re dealing with ideology, we need to talk about class. Cap-doffing and being allowed to snigger with your betters is a decisive part of the Boris Johnson charm (or any similar aristocrat in public office). The roots of class shame, humility and the need for respectability go back at least to the British establishment’s reaction to the French Revolution in the late 18th century. But with deindustrialisation came a collapse in jobs that evoked pride, and in allied industries and incomes that furnished working class communities. London also experienced deindustrialisation of a similar numerical scale to anything in the North-East over the 1960s-70s – hence the peculiar right-wing politics that marks its outer corridors like the East, to this day. The ‘wounds of class’, as David Smail wrote about from a psychiatric point of view, and later Mark Fisher and Jeremy Seabrook, from a socio-political one. We need someone with the insight and anger of Pierre Bourdieu to explore the psychological and embodied structures of social class in the UK.

Recently, I’ve been teaching a class called ‘Where are we going? Philosophy in the Anthropocene’, where I’ve been outlining and discussing concepts for my next book. Both classes I taught have made a great deal clearer. Collectively, we ended up generally agreeing on the importance of theories of participatory democracy, like Carole Pateman’s, but there was a radical strain throughout which refused to accept any theory of human nature as somehow determining or ‘fating’ politics. The concept of the Anthropocene was rejected in favour of an analysis of political and economic structures, but we were also careful to avoid lazy moralising and pieties about the evils of capitalism that divested ourselves of confronting difficult problems of obligation and responsibility that involve each of us.

The Ancient Greeks subscribed to a view of fate, as did Nietzsche. Amor fati, love of fate he called it – accepting what was necessary, embracing it even. But that position has always been dissatisfying to me and others. To not have hope seems strangely luxurious. Hope is something we need to live, to believe that alternatives are possible and worth pursuing – hence the old Gramsci line everyone knows.

But I am not convinced either that, as Mark Fisher once wrote, after Deleuze, that we should abandon hope. The few convincing accounts of hope in my view have come from the American civil rights movement. Dr King famously said that ‘with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope’. But I find it more persuasive in the work of James Baldwin. In his “Letter from a region in my mind”, he pleads for hope, even for what is impossible or unrealistic. ‘But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand’, for history ‘testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible’.

Spinoza is generally dismissive of hope. ‘If men could manage all their affairs by a definite plan, or if fortune were always favorable to them’, he writes at the beginning of the Theological-Political Treatise, then none of us would suffer from superstition. But inevitably we encounter adversity. ‘Then’, he says, ‘they usually vacillate wretchedly between hope and fear, desiring immoderately the uncertain goods of fortune’. In the Ethics he writes that hope is an ‘inconstant joy, arising from the image of a thing future or past, of whose outcome we are in doubt’. Being inconstant, it is unreliable, because it based not on a knowledge of actual events but wishful thinking. ‘The more we strive to live according to the guidance of reason’, he writes, ‘the more we strive to depend less on hope, to free ourselves from fear, to conquer fortune as much as we can, and to direct our actions by the certain counsel of reason’.

But despite hope’s unreliability, it is undeniably one of the things that bring together people into communities. In the later Political Treatise, Spinoza describes political change being driven by ‘a common affect of hope, fear or desire to avenge a common loss’. Because hope involves a joy, it is considered more powerful, because a joy is something correlates to an increase in our power of acting. (All the same – simply advocating joy or collective joy isn’t a consistent position in Spinoza – joy does not make us more powerful, joy instead is something we experience when we become more powerful. Empty or transient joys are no good for us, nor is voluntarism. After a rave is the comedown. Collective power is more than collective joy).

But here I think Spinoza is less insightful than Thomas Hobbes, for whom fear has greater general influence in decisions of politics and human affairs. Many of us have seen this – how fear drives people to extraordinary actions, terrible as well as transformational – as I have beside the dying and the bereaved, the addicted, and those trying to fight their way through social services and housing offices. Fear has been a part of this election. Perhaps fear of the Other – but fear of further uncertainty, of the collapse of one’s savings or aspirations to material security, of being governed by someone who does not seem trustworthy.

You will say: Boris Johnson is far more terrifying. And you are right.

Fear will cloud the next few years. Beyond this current election are the wider crisis issues of the environment – food production, the habitability of many parts of the earth, and the wars and many hundreds of millions of climate refugees forecast by the mid-century – and that of the collapse of social care and the necessity of preparing for an ageing and unwell population. There is also the pressing urgency of restoring the social fabric, and I hope that at least some of the canvassers end up exploring work in frontline charity and social support and advice roles, where a real difference can be made to people’s lives.

Fear inhibits collectivity. Fear leads to distrust, contempt for others, and a retreat within. Fear was decisive in Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarian regimes, in engendering the state of loneliness in which men are ‘deserted by all human companionship’ and feel they can trust no-one.

But fear is not overcome by facile hope. Both are equally uncertain. Fear, in Spinoza’s analysis, which to me remains the best one, is overcome by knowledge of its societal causes. It necessitates what the criminally-underread American philosopher Jane Addams saw as democratic knowledge. ‘All about us are men and women who have become unhappy in regard to their attitude toward the social order itself’, she wrote of working class Chicago, where she was a pioneering social worker at the turn of the 20th century. The challenge for the progressive, for the one who seeks real social transformation, was to develop and enable others to think and act for themselves. This couldn’t be done in a paternalistic, outside-in, top-down way. It meant learning, recognising and becoming part of the same social fabric. This was what she called ‘social morality’. For Carole Pateman, writing of participatory democracy seventy years later, it also necessitates ‘social training’ – a collective education in how and why to participate in community and social life, together. ‘[T]he more individuals participate’, she writes, ‘the better able they become to do so’.

There is an opportunity here for a new kind of participatory social democracy, but it will not become clear for a while. For the Left, simply blaming others is facile, reactionary and likely to lead to a second Johnson term in five years. Recent writing mocking communitarianism has proven to be out of step. But communities, like individuals, are made, not born, as Spinoza says. We will need a new understanding of the social fabric, one that begins to read and think about leading work in sociology and economics. But one, as Jane Addams would stress, that’s rooted in understanding and participating in communities in an open-hearted, democratic way. That remains a powerful opportunity.

2 thoughts on “Hope and fear

  1. Thanks Dan. It’s great to read this on a day where I’m keeping my distance from social media, and restraining myself from slipping into a wound-licking meme vortex. There more most sober and encouraging words I’ve read today, not just thinking of society, but thinking about myself, as I feel a real sense now to both help myself and others, in ways I wouldn’t have considered at the start of the decade. I hope you are well in yourself.

  2. thanks John, that’s nice to hear. I’m still reeling too, and I’ve been worn down by lots of things the previous few months. But it’s on us now to look after ourselves and others we care about. To show solidarity with our friends and loved ones, stand with them despite differences in view. And begin to extend solidarity and generosity outwards to the world, when the time is right, because life really does depend on it. It’s bleak right now, but spring is coming.

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