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The Moral Politics of Hope

Nihilism has, in its own way, become fashionable, a facade that shields its devotees from the burdens of empathy and human connection. But if nihilism is a fashion, we should remember that fashions go out of style.

Gary McCarron

HOPE, n. Desire and expectation rolled into one.
-Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

"In the factory we make cosmetics, in the drugstore we sell hope."
-Charles Revson

I write out of the conviction that hope is still important in a world where optimism is mainly reserved for the clergy and nihilism is treated with a strangely respectful if muted nonchalance. We live in an age that regards nihilism as an intellectual craze, a curious trend taking up space on the pop culture radar screen. In fact, I think that we approach nihilism today with so casual an attitude as to suggest that we have given in to the conceit that all planning for the future is a fool’s game, and accepted, with varying degrees of commitment, the futility of commitment. Nihilism has, in its own way, become fashionable, a facade that shields its devotees from the burdens of empathy and human connection. But if nihilism is a fashion, we should remember that fashions go out of style and undertake to facilitate this transition by hastening nihilism along to obscurity. Nothing would be more useful, in my view, than a public critique of the culture of pessimism that would lead to a reinvigoration of the politics of hope.

It is difficult to pin down the exact appeal of nihilist thinking. Though nihilists believe in nothing, there may be something strangely affordable about a belief whose content is its own annihilation. In this respect, nihilism is the perfect emblem of the capitalist commodity. But should we on account of its affordability embrace nihilism as the preferred moral condition of the times? Is it possible to set hope against the pessimism of the age, or would this only show hope as the weaker candidate? Is hope a sufficiently practical strategy for these times, or does its vague, intransitive abstractness militate against its experiential value?

I frame my concerns with these questions because I fear that hope is an outmoded visitor these days, and that many of our more cynical pundits and cultural observers view hope as woefully out of step with the times. And make no mistake that these times are dark. We are in danger, as the writer Jane Jacobs has argued, of slipping into a new ‘Dark Age’ where pessimism, like an eternal night, will settle over us. Hope seems an obsolete concept under such conditions, a futile and even desperate effort to fend off the depression produced by the inhumanity of relentless capitalist accumulation. It is hard to argue against the view that the world has become too dreadful for hope to be taken seriously.

The modern world is widely regarded as a risk society where our visions of the future are shaped more by our sense of impending calamity than by hope in the possibility of positive change. Though the phrase ‘risk society’ is sociologically descriptive it has its normative dimensions too, for risk is hardly a neutral concept and certainly not an idea around which hope is likely to rally. Our awareness of risk has greatly increased as it becomes evident how the conventional structures of social and political support have been left in tatters by unfettered neo-liberalism. With little or no guarantee that the state is willing to offer adequate provisions against age and illness the notion of risk takes on an aspect of ominous significance. Nihilism feeds off the malaise that accompanies the risk society throwing everything back on individuals and attacking the bases of community solidarity. And that feeling of aloneness only amplifies the sense of impending threat that is at the heart of the risk society.

How do we understand risk in our day-to-day lives? Fundamentally, we distinguish risk from danger in respect of the way that dangers are external to our intentions. That is, dangers come from the outside as instabilities in the otherwise peaceful unfolding of affairs as we go about our daily lives. But risks are different. They are, as philosophers would say, “immanent,” for it is in the nature of risk to be contained already in the social practices of daily life. Risks appear as potential contaminants in our food, air, and water; in the possibility of injury while commuting to work; in the chance that things previously thought to be safe will turn out to be hazardous to our health, safety, or security. The risk society, as many commentators have observed, is where we find ourselves facing a condition of permanent crisis and engaging in ceaseless forms of calculation to determine the risk that might be associated with the most quotidian of activities. The risk society describes a world where the possibility of danger has been replaced by the inevitability of danger, a world of unforgiving and insistent menace.

I suspect that most readers could recite from heart their personal litany of problems that characterize the risk society: global warming, international labor migration, degraded habitats, ethnic and racial violence, a reemerging and unapologetic imperialist mission, grinding poverty – indeed, lists of this sort are now commonplace to the point of being banal, the stuff of evening news broadcasts, the chatter of Sunday morning talking heads, and the topics of prize winning high school essays. Catalogs of misery scroll endlessly through our collective unconscious.

These catalogs of misery help to explain why hope has become a chimera even for many political activists. Consider, for instance, the words of Barbara Ehrenreich who, in the course of reflecting on her treatment for breast cancer commenced a recent Harper’s essay by declaring, “I hate hope.” Ehrenreich’s attack on hope would seem inconsistent with the spirit of radical activism that has motivated so much of her work, but her position is an interesting combination of personal politics and social policy.

Ehrenreich argued that her experiences with breast cancer treatment had hardened her against the appeals for optimism and hopefulness that are addressed to people who face a potentially fatal disease. Such petitions, she suggests, are trite and fail to consider the culpability of government agencies and the medical profession in the broader context of health determinants. She views this triteness as emblematic of the fact that hope has been co-opted as a political mantra. Hope, she argues, has been transformed into a commercial injunction that can be put to service to stave off the realities of disease, or the dangers of ill-advised foreign policy. In her view, hope leads too easily to a ‘Cult of Positivity,’ an unreflective blind faith in which entrepreneurialism is the unstated premise in an enthymeme of mass deception. Thus she positions herself against hope in order to resist its use as a weapon against suffering, and to challenge its tendency to divert us from practical solutions. In support of this ambition she cites for her inspiration philosopher Albert Camus who advised that we draw strength from “the refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.”

Building from this existential bromide, Ehrenreich suggests that hope is the modern opium of the masses, and thus her sly maneuver of connecting hope to faith. Indeed, declaring her loyalty to “secular rationalism” furthers the analysis that motivates her thinking: hope is a vehicle for the conveyance of illusions; it is a form of false consciousness that distracts us from the material realities that advocates of progressive politics and radical social change say must be tackled. Hope, Ehrenreich implies, is mere rhetoric and no dialectic; its putative ambition is to banish negative thinking in order to aid a growing commercial industry of self-help gurus whose books fill the coffers of the publishing industry. It is no wonder then that Ehrenreich concludes her article by boasting of her newly achieved “hope-free” condition.

Ehrenreich’s caution is well advised, especially if understood as a warning against the easy temptations of fantasies and false promises. But to reject hope for its close affinity with the Cult of Positivity as well as for its tendency to make a consort of theology risks overlooking the significant political power that is contained in hope. I am not naïve enough to suggest, incidentally, that hope is simply a substitute term for political action. Indeed, I recognize the legitimacy of the catalogs of misery to which I referred above; I recognize also the soundness of Ehrenreich’s critique of the modern practice of peddling hope as another commercial product. But I want to oppose the idea that hope is mindless boosterism and suggest a different, politically inflected, notion of hope that is more socially conscious and that defines hope as dynamic and not static; as social and not individual; as a productive force and not an act of impotent acceptance. I want to stress that hope is not about unfulfilled and unrealistic dreams but can be the source from which emerge emancipatory achievements. Hope is power, not acquiescence.

Nor is hope concerned solely with the sacerdotal for we must distinguish hope from blind faith. There is no denying that there is a theological implication in many discussions of hope that my atheistic nature prefers to avoid, and it is hard to dispute that religion, for good or for ill, has effectively co-opted hope to its various doctrines. In saying this, I am unconcerned about the content of theological arguments, but I am drawn to the inspirational force of their expression. It is the philosophical substratum and not the theological edifices that I find compelling in the pronouncements of the faithful. Consider, for instance, that faith secures its place in history not because it abolishes doubt but because it lives side by side with doubt, accepts doubt, and accepts the possibility of its own negation. To have faith is to acknowledge that one possesses something other than knowledge, for whereas knowledge is certain faith is tentative and open-ended. Whereas faith places an enormous demand on its subscribers, knowledge places no burden at all. What is built from faith is astonishing if sometimes ill conceived. Even for the non-religious the idea of faith is a remarkable human achievement.

So too, I believe, with hope. Hope is not a guarantee nor is it foreknowledge. It is not a blind faith in the inevitability of one’s desires. Hope is essentially the recognition that the world could be otherwise than what it is, and that if the world could be different then it could also be better. Hope is the keenly felt experience of possibility, the recognition that all conscious appropriation of the tools for social transformation must be inspired by the fact of possibility, difference, and challenge. Hope generates the realization that as the world unfolds political actors have choices to make, and that those choices can have significant consequences on the subsequent articulation of political, economic, and cultural events. To say this is neither to valorize the cult of the individual nor to make a fetish of political agency. After all, things may not always turn out for the better, for circumstances may conspire against our plans. But failure should never negate the impulse for hope; rather, it should confirm that hope’s nature is to be open-ended, not empirically causal, that to hope is to be motivated to work for progressive possibilities with no assurance that our goal is predestined. To hope is to secure no contractual rights.

If hope is the understanding of possibility then, I would argue, it is also the obligation to be willing to undergo sacrifice in order to bring about desired change, to ensure that suffering is alleviated, that pain is attenuated, and that inequality is abolished. Hope has moral gravity insofar as passivity in the face of possibility is acquiescence to domination and the injustices of the status quo. Thus, hope is not merely the blind faith of the zealot, nor the Cult of Positivity for sale on late night television infomercials. Hope cannot be seen as the powerless reaction of those who “can only hope,” trusting against the odds that the dream will overpower the nightmare. If we recognize hope as the source of our moral obligation to shape the future according to the contours of an authentically democratic culture, then hope loses that pained expression of helplessness and becomes instead a powerful motivating engine for social change. Thus I see hope as united with the democratic impulse, both invested with the social responsibility to resist capitalist exploitation, and both necessary to the bedrock of progressive politics. It is important to understand that if we are to regain our hope in social theory we must be constantly alert to the possibility of finding alternatives to capitalism. Indeed, it is our obligation to stave off the ‘Dark Ages’ of which Jane Jacobs warns, and to build from our collective hope an alternative to domination.

In her book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Rebecca Solnit has collected an inspiring array of stories that demonstrate the centrality of hope to political activism. One of the important lessons Solnit presents is that hope can have a political impulse that motivates us in productive and practical ways. Indeed, her collection of accounts of political activism serves as a call to recognize the political power of hope and to disavow its more usual representation as a mode of powerless resignation. Progressive change happens because people hope, and people hope because they long for a better world. To abandon hope, to lose hope, to slip into hopelessness – our language is filled with expressions that capture the dangers of life without hope, life without a critically informed sensibility regarding possibility and alternativeness. Each of these expressions signifies the tragedy of despair and draws from metaphors of loss and abandonment. Hope, on the other hand, conveys images of affiliation in which common cause, even in the face of uncertainty, can rally people to push willingly into unknown territory emboldened by the camaraderie of political organizing. To hope is to engage in an act of considerable courage.

Perhaps it is unusual to see courage and hope linked in this way, but if we reconsider hope as the wellspring of political resistance and renounce conventional notions of hope as the naïve but optimistic counterpart of desolation, then its association with courage is plainly understandable. To reframe hope in this way is to respond to its status as a form of moral obligation in the face of future uncertainties. It is also to forsake the well-traveled avenues to pessimism. Pessimism produces manifest evils, not the least of which is cultural apathy, a position that correlates with unfortunate fidelity to the view that cultural apathy is also one of the more significant problems for participatory democracy. Unlike pessimism, then, hope sets itself against the cultural apathy that undermines democracy. And if the goal of progressive political activism is the extension of democratic process – and if this is recognized in some fashion as constituting a social responsibility – then it is incumbent upon us to challenge the nihilistic sentiments that have settled over much of the political landscape in recent decades. We must never surrender to the facile pronouncements of the cult of positivity, for hopefulness must always be tempered with the cultural politics of realism. Neither can we allow ourselves to be daunted by the challenges that block the way. Hope is a source of power that must be channeled, respected, and applied. To put it plainly, it is the obligation of social activists to embrace hope, to entertain the notion of social change not as an inevitability but as a project in which human action is required.

Gary McCarron is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He is currently studying the relationship between democracy and health.

Copyright © Gary McCarron . All rights reserved.