Left of “Hope”
July 12, 2022
The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe has left me with a now-familiar feeling of hopelessness. This particular political moment—more than Bernie’s failed bids, more than Trump’s election, more than the death of yet another watered-down-but-all-we-got bill to alleviate the growing destitution of the American working class—signals a new wave of aggressive and reactionary reordering of the American political landscape. Where the inability to even inch politics forward through neoliberalism’s two-party charade has allowed for decay throughout its many institutions even as they try to step into other political bodies. This is perhaps seen most keenly in the immediate response to the Roe decision, where the more “radical” nongovernmental organizations can offer up little other than “vote” or “give money.” Perhaps it is unfair to ask them to do anything else given their position in the nonprofit-industrial complex. But the ease with which they fired those messages off, a mirror of the rapidity with which many states enacted complete abortion bans, is telling of the system’s perpetuation of offering hope as a balm to what is a deeply hopeless situation.
This approach has become rather old-hat for the Democrats and their allies. In 2008 Barack Obama offered the putative left the promise of hope and change, signifying that his flavor of Democratic neoliberal politics could offer the latter through the former. And the two are linked together, hope being the necessary ground for change. It has been rightly mocked both then and since, but still, it carries a certain weight. That is, Obama expressed an ethos that has guided (and failed) much of Democratic politics since. Even amongst those that would critique Obama’s cynical use of hope, many would still hold it out as necessary for envisioning anything beyond our current dystopia. Hope serves as a bulwark against nihilism, a wellspring of imaginative possibilities, a grounds to “accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,” to quote Martin Luther King Jr. Without it, it would seem that the left has no ability to sustain the imagination required to overcome capitalism’s increasingly guileful dodging and reabsorption of radical possibilities. In the wake of the collapse of Sanders and Corbyn, with the erosion of basic liberties and an ever more fractured left, it superficially appears that “hope” is all we have to keep us going. But need it play a central role in our politics? Or better asked, do we need it at all?
Cynicism is often counterposed to hope, its ruthless mocker, pointing out that there is no viable alternative to capitalism. Hope, cynicism mocks, only serves as a drug to delude ourselves, a drug that while incredibly good at dreaming up all sorts of futures, does little more than flash pleasant visions in our consciousness as a means of reconciling ourselves to the present. And the cynics are not without their merit. Hope has not delivered. The promise of a different political economy can quite easily become a blind “faith in the unseen” — if we just keep trying, keep believing, in that next round we’ll finally get there. This is a version of hope that the Democratic Party seizes upon. In the face of the newest and greatest conservative threat, this election is inevitably rendered “the most important election of our lives.” Hope thereby becomes an end in itself: Achieving the future envisioned is less important than preserving our hope for it.
Hope, then, expresses an aspiration, not for a different future but for something that makes the present more bearable, more sightly, even as its unbearableness is precisely what triggers the machinery of hope. As an ideology, it becomes susceptible to hegemonic narratives and co-optation. It becomes the means for transforming true change into a meme, a phantasm that comfortably carries us through the misery of the present but not one step further. It is precisely this sort of hope that a neoliberal so readily captures — a more humane face on capitalist institutions is sufficient, even ideal. And the moment it dominates the frame, the horizon of possibility fades quietly out of view, and the "necessity" of leadership being entrusted to whatever placating figure the Democratic party churns out next.
But what of the kind of hope that presses us through in the face of impossible odds? Surely this not only can but should have some part to play in our struggle for socialism. If not as an end, then at least as a means? Here, too, hope has failed us and will do so again and again.
Hope places a false certainty in the idea that if not this choice, then the next one or the one thereafter will make that hope a material reality. But not only is this an empty promise for the left, it is one we don’t need. If Marx’s insights and critiques of capitalism are to be believed, then the question of historical movement beyond its contradictions is a question of when not “if.” We need not build ourselves up with “hope” that humanity can move beyond this system and can instead spend that energy and time engaging with our small part to play in its demise and rebirth into socialism. We cannot know with any certainty whether our choices and political acts will usher in that moment in the near future or even in our lifetimes, and so hope serves as a kind of drug to dull the pain of uncertainty.
Thus, rather than grasping at the silver lining of hope in desperate situations—whether it’s the erasure of children in an elementary school or the month-later “pro-life win” in overturning Roe—we should stare hopelessness in the face, acknowledge its material origins, and recognize that looking anywhere else will only blind us to its presence and persistence. Against this, we should instead take on the cliched but quiet wisdom of a certain fictional character: That in these moments of hopelessness—rather than wish for a different reality, we should instead recognize that “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”