September 24, 2020

In Defense of Hope

via birds before the storm

Let’s talk about hope, for a moment, because a lot of days recently hope feels like the only thing that matters. It’s easy to let it slip away from us.

I haven’t lived through events like this before, and I’m no prophet, but I assume the world will not return to how it was before. I assume the old status quo is gone. A new one will take its place.
I hope the new status quo will be better. I hope it will be built of resilient, interwoven communities. I hope it will be kinder. I hope the horrors of capitalism that have been laid bare will live on only in history books. I hope the horrors of policing and judicial solutions to crisis stay plain for everyone to see and become dark historical footnotes. I hope we remember mutual aid. I hope that in the new status quo that we remember we can just… take care of each other.

That’s what I hope. I think it’s a long shot, but I think it’s possible. I’ll work my hardest to make it happen, and I hope you will too. If I didn’t think it were possible, if I didn’t have hope, I don’t know what I would do.

* * *

For awhile, when I was coming up in politics, it was in vogue to talk shit on hope. There were roughly two different lines of reasoning against hope. First was this idea that “hope” was inherently passive. That hope was about thinking that someone or something else would save you, that hope was about abandoning your agency and relying on something external—like hoping that “the masses” would have a revolution, or that the election would turn out how you want, or that scientists would cure any given disease.

Fundamentally, this critique advocated that we take more active control over our lives. It was to remind us that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Since it’s true that no one is coming to save us, since we actually have to solve problems ourselves, I’m sympathetic to this critique.

The other argument against hope came from a more nihilistic position. The idea was that trying to create a better world was not necessary in order to fight against the horrors of the existent one. By letting go of hope, by accepting that we are doomed no matter which path we choose, we can finally be free. We might not win, but fuck it, we’ll go down swinging because it’s a better way to live, a better way to die.

Both these arguments appealed to me more at a time when the storm of rising fascism and rising temperatures still sat on the horizon. I don’t want to paint a rosy picture of the world at the beginning of this century, because it has always been full of horrors, but I think it’s reasonable to say that for myself and for most of the people likely to read this, things are worse now. Nationalism is more entrenched in more countries. Climate change is no longer on the horizon, it is here. And of course, there’s a pandemic. It’s impossible, no matter how hard I might try on any given day, to forget the toll of this pandemic.

The world is worse, now, than it was then. What do I turn to? I turn to hope.

The opposite of “hope” is not “seizing my own agency” or “grim determination.” The opposite of hope is despair. Despair, at a time like this, will literally kill us. Our mental and physical health are under attack right now, and morale is half that battle. We need hope.

The first argument against hope is simply a semantic one. Writers and theorists need to define terms in order to get their point across. They either latch onto and redefine existing terminology or they make up new terms. I think conflating what could be understood as “passive hope” with “hope” more broadly was likely a mistake.

One might say “if you’re hungry, you don’t hope you get food. You get off your ass and find food.” I’d argue that getting off your ass to find food is, still, an action predicated on hope. If I am hungry, I am hoping that when I search for food, I will succeed. If I had no hope of success, I would not get off my ass to find food. I would despair. If I am taking control of my life as best I am able, I hope I will succeed. This is an active form of hope.

Yet I’m not going to come out swinging too hard against passive hope, either. As much as I believe that we need to develop our sense of agency as individuals, we still live within communities and broader society. There are some things that I am, more or less, passively hoping will happen. I hope scientists discover a vaccine that is effective against COVID-19 and soon. I hope that fewer people die than might. I hope the people I love survive. I don’t have agency in most of those things, or if I do it’s a negligible amount. My role in this is to avoid getting sick if I can, to avoid getting other people sick if I can, and to bolster people’s spirits when I can, whether through the work I produce or just talking to loved ones on the phone. My role is to minimize my impact on an overburdened health system and to offer hope to people where I can.

The other stuff? Vaccines and fewer deaths? That’s what I hope happens. It’s a passive hope.

I’m okay with that.

Hoping that those things will happen can bolster my own sense of agency. If I am part of a team, I hope that my teammates are able to accomplish their tasks, because it takes all of us together to succeed. I am counting on, hoping for, the rest of my team’s success so that my own actions matter.

As for the other critique of hope, the nihilist approach, the grim determination approach… there are use cases for that. Sometimes anger will suffice where hope has failed. Yet, let’s say I am hungry, and I have no hope of finding food. I will not go out and forage anyway, out of grim determination. I will despair. A better use case for this grim determination approach might be, let’s say, an impossible fight against an all-powerful enemy. By abandoning any hope of victory or even survival, I’m less likely to anxiously minimize every risk I take. I’m less likely to let fear destroy my ability to live. I’m more likely to act freely and make the best of the time I have. There’s beauty, there’s poetry, in the freedom one can find in hopelessness. Yet I’ve found even my grim determination works best when I feel as though I have a chance.

I imagine this as a board game, or a strategy game, against a player who is incalculably better equipped and experienced. Despair, alone, would lead me to forfeit. Anger, alone, might lead me to play unintelligently and simply lash out, trying to hurt my enemy as much as possible in a move destined to end the game early with my defeat.

I live my best life when I play to win, whether or not I succeed.

I assume I will not die as I intend to: really fucking old, having lived most of my life in an anarchist society, surrounded by friends and family. That’s still my goal. That’s what I’m fighting for. I live my best life by working towards that goal as though it were possible. Because it is possible. It’s just not likely. Give me a sliver of hope with my grim determination.

Without hope, to be honest I’d probably just get drunk and play video games, not live some wild and beautiful and short life of revolutionary crime.

* * *

We’re not playing against an opponent who is incalculably better equipped and experienced. We’re far, far more powerful than we give ourselves credit for and our opponent’s position, which seemed so unassailable only last year, is clearly weaker than he has led us to believe. There are more of us than we’d ever imagined, and more are joining us every day.

* * *

Lately I’ve been taking stock of what gives me hope, and I refer back to my list whenever something happens in the world that strips hope away from me. I recommend this. Your list might not look like mine, and that’s fine. In times like these, there are people who are going to step forward claiming to have all the answers, or even know all the questions to ask. Those people are either lying or wrong, and either way they’re trying to sell you something. Make your own list. Have your own goals.

Right now, I find hope in the mutual aid networks that are suddenly everywhere. I find hope in the prison riots in Italy, and I find hope in the judges in the US that are letting more and more people out of jails and prisons. I find hope in how many former centrists or even capitalists are abandoning the profit motive to feed people, house people, and keep as many people safe as they can. I find hope in the rent strikers, the mortgage strikers, and even in the landlords who are telling tenants they don’t have to pay right now. I find hope in the scientists who are refusing to let their findings help only a single nation. I find hope in the engineers who are breaking patent law to create life-saving equipment. I find hope in the patent-holders who are suspending their intellectual property claims en masse in order to let their inventions be used to save lives. I find hope in the General Electric employees who are demanding that their industrial production be moved over to the creation of ventilators. I find hope in the science fiction magazine in China that is sending me n95 masks to distribute to local frontline workers.

I find hope in the people who are finding ways to take care of one another from afar. I find hope in the people who are risking their mental health in order to preserve their own and other people’s physical health. Choosing isolation is not a simple thing for anyone, but it’s harder on some people than others.

Basically, I find hope in everyone who is doing what they do best—whether through criminal or legal means—to break apart the status quo as fast as possible in order to save lives.

It’s happening everywhere. I never thought I’d live to see the day when so much of the world comes together to try to save each other.

So… it’s us. I find hope in us.

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