Hope is Our Resistance

Posted: June 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

Last month I posted The Ruling Class Tremble, an article about fear. In the introduction I said “I write this with some apprehension. In exploring things I dread, I’m nervous about adding to other people’s anxiety and distress.” For those who read that article – this is my attempt at an antidote – an exploration of hope.

In my writing I’ve often quoted the advice of Raymond Williams that a vital task is to make “hope practical, rather than despair convincing.” Yet, for a long time, I have struggled with both hope and despair. At this time of year I’m reminded of the people lost through suicide. July 2nd is the anniversary of the day my friend Belinda Deane took her own life. For thHOPE gige past 14 years this anniversary has been marked by the HOPE suicide prevention gig. HOPE brings together a mixture of local bands, Belinda’s friends, others who have experienced loss through suicide, and people who just come along for a dance, in order to raise awareness about the way we treat each other.

These days I’m often confronted by some of my best friends and most respected comrades who believe it’s too late, there is no hope – humanity is doomed. They are far from alone in worrying about the storms that are coming and the ones we’re already weathering. Many people believe that fear and anxiety are the predominant emotions and affects in contemporary capitalist society and there is no doubt that individual anxieties and more general social fears are common. Increasingly people are worried about environmental collapse, climate change, pollution, radiation, food contamination, violence, war, terrorism, physical and mental illness, job and financial security, and more. These anxieties are transmitted between people – leading to widespread hopelessness.

Hope seems to be in short supply and many have lost faith in humanity as a positive history-making agent. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Earlier this year, I participated in a reading group exploring Naomi Klein’s most recent book This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs the Climate. During the group’s discussions, it became clear that half of those participating were hopeful about the future of humanity and the other half more despairing. I had previously criticised Naomi’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (which explores how neoliberalism takes advantage of people’s disorientation following massive collective shocks such as wars, terrorist attacks and natural disasters) for too heavily concentrating on the power of capital and for reinforcing the shocks of the system. After writing The Shock Doctrine, Naomi was invited all over the world to speak about disaster capitalism. But, after a while, she began to wonder – what is the point of repeatedly telling people how bad things are?

Surprisingly, in her book on climate change, she’s more optimistic. In an interview discussing This Changes Everything she says – “We need fear and hope in equal measure. We absolutely should be scared. But fear alone will not mobilise people, or it will mobilise them in scary ways.” While, in the book she argues – “Fear is a survival response. Fear makes us run, it makes us leap, it can make us act superhuman. But we need somewhere to run to. Without that, the fear is only paralysing. So the real trick, the only hope, really, is to allow the terror of an unliveable future to be balanced and soothed by the prospect of building something much better than many of us have previously dared hope.”

Reviewing This Changes Everything, David Ulin denounced Naomi’s optimism and her faith in humanity. He, and those promoting ‘business as usual’ and ‘market solutions’, base their visions of the future on pessimism, a lack of hope in people, and a grim view of ‘human nature’. As Naomi has pointed out, many people are convinced that “the underlying cause of environmental problems is a pervasive climate of rampant selfishness and greed” which is irreversible and therefore “they feel that environmental problems are unsolvable.” Meanwhile, writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot has argued that “when fears are whipped up, they trigger an instinctive survival response. You suppress your concern for other people and focus on your own interests. Conservative strategists seem to know this, which is why they emphasise crime, terrorism, deficits and immigration.” It therefore appears, he lamented, “I’ve been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years.” Similar concerns have also been taken up in a report by several green groups called Common Cause for Nature. “Provoking feelings of threat, fear or loss may successfully raise the profile of an issue,” but “these feelings may leave people feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue.” People respond to feelings of insecurity “by attempting to exert control elsewhere, or retreating into materialistic comforts.”

The more control you have over your life the more optimistic you’re likely to be. Hope effects the way people think about and perceive events, it effects the way we behave, and motivates our activity. As George Monbiot points out, we tend “to assume that people are more selfish than they really are. Surveys across 60 countries show that most people consistently hold concern for others, tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves to be more important than wealth, image and power.” Therefore, “expounding a positive vision should be at the centre of attempts to protect the things we love. An ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair.”

hopeless 1Similarly, in This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that we need “to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy.” Ideology and belief are important when we’re considering hope. People often understand hope as a form of belief – because we cannot know the future. For some on ‘the left’, hope smacks of religion and a lack of scientific rigour. Hope is fine for those who believe in destiny, God, or an afterlife, but for atheists and materialists hope is not to be trusted. Those who question everything will always interrogate hope and find it precarious. However, we shouldn’t neglect or ignore the existence and reality of hope, or become blind to the worlds we might like to see. A ruthless critique of everything – including the future – can foster feelings of powerlessness, while unquestioningly accepting popular and pessimistic visions about imminent collapse and destruction leads to despondency. Critical analysis, not in the spirit of cynicism or despair, but of optimistic scepticism, can help to create, maintain, and extend people’s confidence. Hope doesn’t have to be reliant on belief or faith, it can be based on evidence, even when it involves doubt about an outcome.

One of contemporary capitalism’s most effective weapons is the belief that ‘there is no alternative’. Confidence in the ‘progressive dynamic of history’ has been replaced with growing uncertainty. Hope involves the expectation of something good, and we tend to use the past and present as the best indicators of the future. If we view the past as a long series of disasters and defeats, the present and the future are likely to appear grim. Instead of looking back with a sense of disappointment and regret, we can keep alive the experiences, lessons and experiments that offer us some hope. When we gaze into the future, our optimism can be based on the reality that, despite the level of current suffering, what we want has already, and does already exist in some ways; or at least parts of what we desire are already present. This can provide evidence of what is possible. Every day, around the world, there are many wonderful things happening and these should give us confidence that when we try to create a better world it is possible to succeed.

The ‘Hope of Hope’

Scanning the horizon for signs of hope, a lot of recent debate has focused on the situation in Greece and South America. However, discussing mainstream criticism of the revolutionary upsurges in Greece and Venezuela, Slavoj Zizek points out; “We are today under a tremendous pressure of what we should unashamedly call enemy propaganda.” Quoting fellow philosopher Alain Badiou, he explains; “The goal of all enemy propaganda is not to annihilate an existing force (this function is generally left to police forces), but rather to annihilate an unnoticed possibility of the situation.” “In other words,” says Zizek, “they are trying to kill hope.”

In the lead-up to this year’s Greek election the streets of Athens were covered in Syriza posters proclaiming, “Hope is on the way.” The subsequent election of a left-wing anti-austerity government created a sense of optimism that the situation in Greece could change for the better and this helped to spread hope around the world. But, reporting from Athens, Kevin Ovenden pointed out “the election campaign did not bring jubilant crowds or joyously hopeful eruptions at rallies or in spontaneous gatherings.” There was instead “a considered optimism. People hoped to hope.”

This was a view shared by Syriza Central Committee member, Stathis Kouvelakis, who declared that those who voted for Syriza “hadn’t really voted for hope, so much as for the hope of hope.” Since their electoral victory, in the face of great difficulties, the Syriza government has helped to improve the lives of many. But the majority of people in Greece, and elsewhere, are not stupid. They have seen how contemporary politics operates and understand the pressures this new Government is facing. Over the past decade, many on ‘the left’ have had their hopes raised by the revolutions occurring in Bolivia, Venezuela, and the ‘pink tide’ surging across South America. Yet, we have also seen how contradictory these struggles are, and worried that this tide may dash our hopes on the rocks. Meanwhile, here in Australia, I have friends who continue to hope that the ALP will deliver progressive change, despite all the evidence to the contrary. While in the U.S.A., Barack Obama was elected on a platform of ‘hope’, and whatever his intentions, he remained captured by capital and has operated as a mouthpiece for its viciously horrific state forms.

obamaIn Mexico, the Zapatistas have recently considered such false hope, declaring – “Hope, friends and enemies, is the necessity most successfully commercialized there above. Hope that everything will change, that finally there will be well-being, democracy, justice, freedom. Hope is what the enlightened from above snatch from the down-and-out below and then sell back to them. Hope that a resolution to their demands comes in one of the colors found in one of the products in the system’s cupboards.” This is – “Because up above, hope is a commodity, yes. But below, it is a struggle for a certain truth: We will get what we need and deserve because we are organising and we are struggling for it.”

The ‘real democracy’ movements, which have swept across much of the world during the past few years, reflect a widespread understanding that those who pin their hopes on politicians, political parties, or governments, are likely to be disappointed. Meanwhile, some of the best analysis on the Greek elections has pointed out that the real hope for a radical alternative was not offered by Syriza, but by Greece’s solidarity movements.

Making Hope Practical

Only two months into Syriza taking office, as the obstacles to progressive change in Greece became increasingly apparent, Kevin Ovenden asked; “Is hope even alive?” His answer, was an unequivocal “yes”. Not because of “facile optimism or self-delusion as to the course the government of Alexis Tsipras has followed. Nor am I unmindful of the huge difficulties . . . Rather, hope is alive because it arises ultimately from the initiative, courage, struggles and mutual solidarity of the popular masses in Greece, which lifted the whole of the Left at the polls and put Syriza in power. And that wellspring is far from exhausted.”

Similarly, discussing the continual failure of corporations and politicians to care about the environment in This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein explains that “any credible source of hope in this crisis will have to come from below.” Therefore, she highlights the common projects of mutual aid which are responsible for humanity’s greatest accomplishments, which defend “those parts of our societies that already express these values outside of capitalism”, while drawing connections amongst our disparate struggles. Here hope is understood as a range of previous and existing movements and struggles and as a projection of their power and influence into the future.

When we ponder the sources of hope, questions are raised about – what we expect of ourselves and what we expect of other people. Like Naomi Klein, Kevin Oveden, and many others, my own hope is based on the continued existence of progressive struggles and the social movements opposing capitalism. I also find hope in my family relationships and friendships, in my connections with those I love and who love me. When I consider the way my neighbours and workmates often help and support each other in their day to day activities, and when I pay attention to the variety of caring relations I witness all around me, they inspire hope. Sometimes I rely on the hope expressed in music, films, books and other forms of artistic expression. When I commune with nature, or encounter other people’s joy, happiness, kindness, compassion and generosity, I become more hopeful. The impressive achievements of left-wing governments, and the social movements on which they depend, also help to sustain my optimism.

Across the globe there are countless gatherings, engagements and events that demonstrate hope can be, and is, embedded in our practice. Hope is what most people want and we all need realistic goals and practical pathways to an improved future. The Zapatistas, and others, have popularised the idea that ‘we make the road by walking’ – that what is created in the present can both prefigure what’s ahead, as well as addressing our current needs and desires. However, concentrating too much on the immediate moment means we lose sight of the moments to come. As I say in the ‘About Revolts Now’ section of this blog – I think of revolution as a historical process, a long series of varied events in the past, present and future. Those familiar with my writing will also know that it’s love (which I usually define as the struggle to create, maintain and develop caring social relations), that gives me the most hope.

A hundred years ago, Emma Goldman pointed out that love is “the harbinger of hope.” The reality and hope of moving beyond capitalism and of building lives in common, depends on our ability to love, on the maintenance and creation of caring social connections, cooperation and mutual support. Loving relationships are based on a shared commitment to the future. Yet, we have no crystal ball and the future is unwritten. Meanwhile, it is very difficult to see and understand the world as it really is. The experiences and news of how bad things can be, and how much worse they could become, often results in denial, fear and a sense of defeat. We need to be honest about our failures and our contemporary concerns and we cannot pretend the worst predictions about the future do not exist. But nor should we ignore our successes, or accept the way things are, or rely on fear of an impending apocalypse as motivation to act – because the politics of despair are incredibly dangerous. Fear is powerful and useful and too much hope may lead to disengagement from contemporary struggles. But we need to be careful not to become amplifiers of the anxieties and miseries on which disaster capitalism thrives.

Hope can be more powerful than fear. It arises from our positive action and interaction, from people’s ability to change and to create change, and hope changes us. Hope provides us with the motivation to pursue possibilities and opportunities and helps us to persist in the face of obstacles and setbacks. My previous blog posts have explored a range of social movements which hopefully organise against capitalism and deploy the hope for real democracy, the hope for peace, the hope for love, the hope for a better world. This post is timed to coincide with the upcoming HOPE gig – where people will gather together to preserve and celebrate the memory of Belinda Deane and others who we’ve lost over the years, to raise funds for suicide prevention, to raise awareness about the way we treat each other, and to find hope in each other.

Nick Southall

hope gig 3The Elastic Waste Band @ HOPE 2014. Photo – Warren Wheeler.

  1. joshdubrau says:

    Beautiful, Nick!
    Sometimes I’ve wondered if a problem people have with ‘hope’, is that as a verb, an action, it seems passive. But the idea of making the road ahead as we walk it that you put forward adds an active dimension to that.

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