The Power of Hope to Dismantle a Political-economic System of Inequality

Nietzsche observes, “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” Basically, distrust every optimistic theory. In other words, Nietzsche’s response to the tragedy of life is neither resignation nor self-denial, but a life-affirming pessimism. The hope that the 2008 crisis would give rise to a more progressive capitalism turns out to be premature. A ‘lost generation’ is facing a ‘bleak future’ and with little hope of achieving the lifestyle that their parents enjoyed. Unraveling the lies that the apostles of neoliberalism have spun is not an easy prospect, and yet when committed in solidarity, the task becomes one that intensifies our proclivity for fellowship and convivial forms of being. Hope recalibrates your mindset and makes you believe there is a way out of your deepest fears. Hope broadens our observations and gives us the circular vision to see around, beneath and beyond the goals we seek.

From the competing visions of recovery, the ascendance of austerity as both a political and an economic project paved the way for the construction of a new economically-elite-driven, capital-centric, shrunken welfare state model founded on a non-ideological, pragmatic, economic ‘truth’. Contemporary welfare states now exist within a world in which austerity as a broad set of ideas, encompasses the liberal (in a Hayekian sense) desire to shrink the (social welfare) state, deregulate labor and promote private markets as the driver of growth. This has forced a reconfiguration of the fortunes of the wealthy, the interests of capital, the position of middle-income and poorer citizens, and the state itself. And the biggest losers have been the poorest citizens. Nor is this new politics driven simply by economic austerity. An austere politics has sapped the political imagination and robbed people of hope that things might, one day, get better. At every level austerity restricts the terms of debate.

The present-day political irruption of populism is fueled by the institutional decay of electoral democracy, combined with growing public dissatisfaction with politicians, political parties and “politics”. Reinforced by the failure of democratic institutions to respond effectively to anti-democratic challenges such as the growing influence of cross-border corporate power, worsening social inequality and the dark money poisoning of elections, the decadence is proving to be a lavish gift to leaders, parties and governments peddling the mantra of “the sovereign people”. Among the strangest and most puzzling features of the post-truth phenomenon is the way it attracts people into voluntary servitude because it raises their hopes and expectations of betterment. In today’s fluid job markets rife with casual, part-time and temporary jobs, exists the illusion of unemployment – a measure of labor market tightness that is hopelessly inadequate.

In May 1515, Thomas More was sent to Bruges as part of a delegation to revise an Anglo-Flemish commercial treaty. It was during this trip he began to write Utopia. He coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘nowhere’. But this was a pun – the almost similar Greek word eu-topas means ‘a good place’. The story of the fictional island society of Utopia was meant to contrast with the reality of European rule, divided by ideologies, greed and corruption. This phenomenon of utopian hope – its nature, its causes, its consequences, whether it’s ever realistic, whether it ever does any good – certainly deserves attention and analysis, because hope can affect a lot of people. It’s a vast topic, with many dimensions. The student of utopian thought must also take note of religion, which until technology has been the main avenue through which humans have pursued their most transcendental hopes, like not having to die.

In his search for a political narrative of economic hope to counteract the rise of rightwing populism, Paul Mason identifies the sense of belonging that exists in faith communities. Here, a selfless collaboration for the inclusive good of one another has never required disruption of the free-market economy. It is just that this ethos has not been introduced at the national economic and political levels. This strategy, though not sufficient to secure the popular vote, resonated with tens of millions of anxious voters who heard Trump promote utopian ideas during the election, then once elected, introduce a suffocating extension of the neoliberal present into the indefinite future. Rather than accept this neoliberal version of the future, even if it is sweetened with tepid incremental reforms, many of them chose to invest their hopes in the imaginary glories of an idealized past conveniently scrubbed of civil rights and environmental activism.1

Danielle L. Dixson identifies what gives her hope about the future: “The activity of young people and the understanding of needing to change behavior and shift towards an action-based climate where people are held accountable.” No longer content to watch the sunset, where to stay the course would be to commit planetary suicide, people are gathering in greater numbers to push back. As twilight moves in and the neoliberal nightmare seems assured, there is increasing recognition that this state of affairs can only be met by a new dawn. And so we see the vestiges of hope beginning to entwine themselves through a broad range of social phenomena. Defiance of neoliberalism comes in the form of increasing protests that capture global media attention, but equally, and arguably more importantly, in everyday acts of resistance, where people continue to organize their lives in ways that break with market logic, bringing light back into the world.

 Young people are reinventing activism and democracy, finding radical new ways to understand and tackle long-standing injustices. There are obvious limitations to how effective such movements can be when wider solidarities have not been as forthcoming as one might hope. Yet there are indications that a broader movement is beginning to emerge, particularly around election times. The reclamation of our own authority in the face of neoliberalism represents a means without ends. It is a constant struggle, where winning means that resistance is an ongoing and continuing commitment to the unraveling of the world we knew, in the hope of stitching together alternatives that are empowering and affirming for us all. The remaking of the world then is fundamentally up to each one of us. What we do with our lives and how we interact with our fellow travelers on this journey we call ‘life’ actually matters.

Robert Max Holmes, deputy director and senior scientist at Woods Hole Research center observes, “I’m not optimistic that the current generation of leaders will solve the climate challenge, but young people give me hope.” We need multiple movements and to (re)configure new forms of social hope. Remember all our movements need to build on and mutually support each other. While government may not be perfect in every scenario, the potential for making a system based on thoughtful values (e.g. transparency and mutual support) is much higher than neoliberalism which is based on destructive values (e.g. consumption, greed, every person for themselves). The power elite control what you think through proxies who control information and communication, and through their lobbyists who influence what most of your politicians believe. Through this mechanism they perpetuate the fear of change – if taxes are raised on the rich unemployment will rise and existing jobs will disappear.

We need to shift the neoliberal narrative. We have to confront these ideas – neoliberalism seeks to privatize, deregulate government, cut social services, and shift values from the public good/community to values based on “rule of the market”/individual responsibility – and wherever they appear make sure folks know the coercive history of how these thoughts became imbedded in our political discourse.  Since we must do more than simply pointing out the negative implications of neoliberal frames, we must also clearly and persistently articulate our own values. Some or the most important include: Government can, and ought to be a force for good. External factors influence an individual’s success, thus we must all do our part to support others. An open and transparent political and economic system is fundamental to a healthy society.2 We must fight for free, expanded, and accessible public services. We must win workers’ rights and decent wages.

We think about the future a lot – both because it gives us an emotional boost and because other people (parents, teachers, marketers) are encouraging us to do so. Second, not all thoughts about the future are created equal. Hope can certainly be a viable strategy – but without substance, value and daily progress, selling hope becomes limited and irresponsible. Once we’ve started to unravel the culture that somehow neoliberalism is impenetrable and “the only option,” we have to shut down the practices that neoliberals use to implement their ideology at the political and economic level. We need a community response to the violence of neoliberalism and the common goods gap. It needs to be in the form of social assistance and language that encourages hope rather than stigmatizes recipients. Quality of life factors, the most important determinants of human happiness and well-being, will create opportunities to organize our societies from a sustainable scale perspective.

1 Michael Greenwood, Geoff Naylor & David Murray. (28 Nov 2018) The problem with neoliberalism.

2 Drew Serres. The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism.

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