The Geography of Hope in Dark Times
After being challenged by more than one reader about being overly-negative, I’ve been exploring this issue of the relationship between hope and realism, between despair and leadership.
One reader wrote: “This site has descended into a spiral of bitterness and negativity. While I don’t necessarily disagree with anything written, I find the tone the articles have generally taken to so depressing and deflating, in stark contrast to what attracted me to this site in the first place. Granted, the political landscape might look rather bleak, but part of progressive thought and progressive politics is about trying to keep that positivity even in the darker times when it’s most challenging.”
They continued: “I understand that this role may seem like a thankless task, and I appreciate how hard it may be to avoid getting bogged down in the emotional mire that comes with it. It’s times like these were it becomes more important though, there’s an opportunity for Bella to show a bit of leadership here. Continued wallowing in negativity and self pity will only contribute further to the situation, but pushing back, as hard as that may be, with a return to the kind of progressive optimism that made Bella stand out in the first place could help buck the trend.”
It’s a challenging comment. To what extent should writers, and editors, and publications reflect the world as they perceive it, and to what extent should they try and shape it, bend it to their will? One of the things that movements of all kinds need to do is to face reality, not evade it.
One response to the reader, (perhaps instantly defensive), is to reply ‘it’s not up to me to cheer you up?’ Another is to look inwards and reflect on how much output is negative, and what that’s about? A third might be to recognise that, objectively, in many of our political movements, cultural spaces and social reality, there is much to despair about.
This from an essay by Yotam Marom reflects on how people act in moments of extreme crisis or collapse, in which he reflects on how the Jewish resistance responded in the Warsaw ghetto (What To Do When the World is Ending?‘):
“In the moments of wisdom encouraged by these heroes, I remember that despair is my vanity talking. It is an indulgence in the illusion that what is here and now is inevitable, that the future is written, that we can see how it will unfold. Despair is not about reality, or the world, or even ultimately the people we care about. It is about us.”
“Despair is also, quite simply, bad politics. By surrendering the fight outwards, despair refocuses us inward. It encourages what I’ve called the politics of powerlessness, marked by navel-gazing, endless process, posturing, and the internal power struggles and call-outs that weaken our organizations and movements. When we don’t believe we can win, we reach instead for the comfort of being surrounded by people who think and talk and look like us, the thrill of being part of the in-group, the small pleasures of being right and pure. In despair there is no need for good strategy, no need for healthy group culture. These are things we only need if we intend to take a real shot at winning. Despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy; it blocks us from taking agency, which makes it all the more likely that our worse fears will come to pass.”
He concludes “Movements that are hopeful and aware of their power sometimes lose. But groups that don’t believe its possible to win always lose.”
The antidote to this approach is a little more cynical. At the time when Obama weaponised Hope in his campaign he was widely derided from those on the Left as creating a vacuous liberal trademark that bore little relation to his actual delivery. This was, it was argued, the worst kind of ‘false hope’ which actually delivered system-continuity with superficial, surface-only change.
‘How’s that Hopey stuff coming along?’ people would sneer.
It’s important to think about what Hope is not. As is often the case inspiration and clarity comes from people who do rather than people who remain passive.
Hope is also not a general outlook, or an outlook of optimism. Rebecca Solnit wrote a book ‘Hope in the Dark’ in 2005. She writes:
“It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It is also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse one.”
What all of these writers stress is agency, or hope with a purpose and a plan. What influences despair in most of us is a feeling of lack of agency. We suffer from a torrent of information – most of it terrible and tragic – and with little or no capacity to respond. We doom scroll endlessly in what some have called inter passivity – the appearance that we are interacting ‘clicking’ or ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ but really interacting in only the most passive and ineffective way possible.
This idea appears new but can be seen in the work of Elisée Reclus, who wrote ‘The Geography of Hope, a Guided Tour of the World We Need’ over a hundred years ago.
As the preface to a new collection of work about his ideas puts it: “One of the best-known images from Reclus’ works originally appeared above the preface of his magnum opus, L’Homme et la Terre. It depicts two hands holding the earth, coupled with the statement in French that “Humanity is nature becoming self-conscious.” It is clear that the image indicates not only that the fate of the earth is now in the hands of humanity, but also that humanity can only fulfill its weighty responsibility by acting with an awareness that we are an integral part of nature, rather than continuing under the illusion that we are a power over and above the natural world.”
There is a tension in writing and publishing about how you respond to the world. If Reclus vison gives us historical and geographic context to step away from our own ‘moment’ you can draw inspiration too from Patrisse Cullors (one of the founders of Black Lives Matter) idea to: “Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power (and collective transformation), rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams”. Her statement perhaps illuminates the fact that despair and rage and grief and hope all coexist.