The crisis ahead of us has never been so stark, but the temptation to retreat into pessimism, miserablism and indifference must be resisted. Rowan Fortune argues that we wager on socialist optimism, as we still have a world to win!
24 July 2020
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The stakes ahead are stark. Any global realignment towards a capitalist political hegemony to overcome the twinned disasters facing our species—climate change and economic crisis—have either broken down or are inadequate to the threat, assuming such a thing was ever viable. To use the language of Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan, a capitalist global sovereignty necessary for some kind of Keynesian approach to the ensuing catastrophe is facing an increasingly dominant and potentially world-ending rival.
This terrifying rival comes in the form of what those authors call Behemoth, the far right’s growing ascendancy around the world that has been aptly assessed (with copious data) by Neil Faulkner, Samir Death, Phil Hearse and Seema Syeda in their book Creeping Fascism, as well as Walden Bello in Counterrevolution. Debates exist around whether this far right represents a distinct set of nationalist, protectionist rivals, epitomized by Donald Trump’s rhetoric of Great Power Competition, or are themselves subsumed into the agendas of a new trans-national capitalist class to break localised resistance to capitalism, as William I. Robinson has argued.
It is a debate that reflects rival assessments of the economy (debates over profitability, underconsumptionism, etc), going back to splits such as that between the obscure Marxist economist Henryk Grossman and the well known revolutionary and theoretician Rosa Luxemburg; although these two currents, on this one issue, themselves obscure greater theoretical multitudes. Such discussions are significant, and can be conducted in good faith since all participants contribute serious insights in different areas. I lean towards Grossman’s views on economics (albeit not all of his politics), but even that is only a point of departure.
However, we can encapsulate all of these socialist views under a shared and fairly pessimistic assessment of contemporary capitalism’s ability to overcome its current crises without giving rise to barbarism or extinction—assuming any distinction between capitalism and barbarism. This dreadful assessment means climate change (as just one expression of the ecological catastrophe), as the 2018 IPCC report quite conservatively suggests, represents a historical juncture that puts at risk (at the very least) the entire modernist project of unleashing humanity’s productive capacities and anything better (a.k.a. socialism) that might plausibly follow from that project.
The pessimistic (and deeply reactionary, if nonetheless talented) horror writer H. P. Lovecraft denied being a pessimist. This would surprise most readers of his cosmic horror, which was deeply embedded in the nascent antihumanism of an age when humanity’s metanarratives of hope and progress were first coming under threat from multiple and novel angles (such as our decentring knowledge of the universe, the greatly destructive capacity of our emerging weapons technologies, and deeply misanthropic reactionary ideologies emerging from the deadlocks of history).
In a letter to James F. Morton, the author addressed the question in his own roundabout language:
I am not a pessimist but an indifferentist—that is, I don't make the mistake of thinking that the resultant of the natural forces surrounding and governing organic life will have any connexion with the wishes or tastes of any part of that organic life-process. Pessimists are just as illogical as optimists; insomuch as both envisage the aims of mankind as unified, and as having a direct relationship (either of frustration or of fulfilment) to the inevitable flow of terrestrial motivation and events.
Indifferentism is the bankrupt copout of philosophical pessimism. It is founded in a strange understanding of words such as ‘pessimism’ or ‘optimism’—as if what is meant by such words is an abstracted assessment of humanity’s aggregated goals or the selfsame’s relationship to natural forces. In truth, people are optimistic or pessimistic about something in particular, rather than in the sense of delivering a godly verdict on metaphysical teleology and its relationship to all possible human destinies: I am optimistic socialists can have a good faith debate about their differences or I am pessimistic that human freedom and flourishing necessarily characterise our future.
Lovecraft’s philosophical pessimism, which was likely an expression of his traumatised personality (his upbringing was abusive and he tragically struggled all of his life to sustain healthy relationships) abstracts the question of hope so as not to have to face particular optimisms, particular pessimisms. Indifferentism is a dead-end posture, which is also to say that it is a crutch.
Against the catastrophe facing us, the left can ill afford to be indifferent.
There is an exhaustive set of possible attitudes about the crises facing us that can be adopted from a socialist point of view, with the overcoming of the present crises, and therefore capitalism, being our desired endpoint. We are fatally doomed, probably doomed, fatally saved or probably saved. I would argue that a sober assessment of our predicament does not suggest that we are either fatally or probably saved. Socialist organisation is in pitiful disrepair when it is most needed, the disasters we face (climate change, the far right and capitalism) converge and reinforce one another. The sum of all of this appears ahead of us very much in the murky outline of one of Lovecraft’s great monsters from the stars.
The question, then, is between whether we are fatally or probably doomed. Whether that dimly perceived monster is something we can nonetheless overcome. I would argue that the latter attitude, which I advocate, qualifies as a cautious optimism and is justified. It is essentially the position taken by Mann and Wainwright in proposing the possibility of what they dub Climate X, an emancipatory, anti-sovereign anti-capitalism that emerges from the contradictions and interstices of contemporary social conflicts. Marxist and indigenous struggles, especially.
This is not merely the optimism of black swans (what Donald Rumsfeld once called unknown unknowns), as the point is not to sit back and wait for spontaneous outpourings of alternatives. Rather, we can talk about contexts being more or less conducive to something such as Climate X, and therefore be motivated to prepare the ground for taking advantage of such outpourings, to defend and prioritise these moments of agency that indeed do attempt to assert a connection between the wishes or tastes of organic life-processes and the shaping of natural forces—to use Lovecraft’s flowery terminology.
To claim the opposite, that we are fatally doomed, is indeed to deny the possibility of such a connection. Pessimism is a protective indifference. In the Marxist tradition, with its generally rich historic ties to Romantic melancholy, it is an especially tempting gesture—one need only look at the miserablist tendencies of the Frankfurt School in evidence. And retrospectively despair might yet be borne out, either inevitably or, having adopted the fatalistic attitude, by the consequent failure of socialists to be agents in the world. So much the worse for us if it is the latter!
An Alien Optimism
Just as Lovecraft’s attitude seems to emerge clearly from his attitude to his own times and life, so too does left miserablism. Related to this, I would add a forth converging crisis to those already mentioned above, that of alienation. This is a problem everywhere, but especially in the imperialist countries, whose economic viability are sustained by exporting capital, so that a predominantly service sector domestic economy has created a level of alienation from productive forces (as well as social atomisation) that is historically without precedent.
Moreover and connectedly, neoliberal ideology (still the superstructure of our moment) has exacerbated all of this. It has suppressed our ability to imagine historical alternatives (what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism); its stress on a reified ideal of human nature as competitive, egoistic, shallow and consumerist has further obscured our species-being; its imposed its logics even on public sector institutions where previously some limited escape from market relations could be found; it has shaped the advancement of communications technology along models of shallow engagement and addiction. All of this has contributed to an epidemic of mental health conditions.
These forces explain why the far right of today looks and behaves as only the strangest margins of the far right in the twentieth century did. The pseudo counterculture right of Italian Futurism or German Occultism was never the public face of fascism in its own epoch, whereas the alt-right is dominated by the morbidly pessimistic and strange philosophies of online incels (involuntary celibates who make a metaphysics out of their misogyny) and other strange cults of apocalypticism (excellently documented by Elizabeth Sandifer’s essay collection Neoreaction a Basilisk).
The left does not sit above such tendencies. We too recruit from the alienated. Admittedly, our spiritual health is not in so extreme a condition as that observable on the far right, who are defined by an aestheticisation of politics that always verges on fantastical despair. There is a reason why among philosophical pessimists (for example H. P. Lovecraft, Emil Cioran, Yukio Mishima, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Nick Land) far right sympathies are notably common. However, we socialists exist within a historical context too (something the more cultish forms of Marxism forget) and are shaped by that; our pessimism is of a moment, it is not necessarily as objective as it can seem.
As I sketched at the beginning of this essay, and I hope hinted throughout, there is much theoretical and practical work to be done. None of that can be accomplished from a position of hopelessness, any more than it could from a position of glib, false hope. On that, let me conclude with a Pascalian wager. There is nothing to gain from pessimism or indifference, even if it transpires to be justified. There is everything, however, to gain from a sensible, cautious hope, and nothing to lose if it transpires to be futile.
Although his detractors accused him of neglecting the point, Blaise Pascal (who proposed a similar wager to the one I am suggesting here) understood acutely that belief is not something we merely will into being. Anticipating later philosophical developments, he saw belief as embodied in rituals, in repeated, shared activities; it is one of philosophy’s most underrated insights. Soviet writer Andrey Platonov, as elucidated in McKenzie Wark’s book Molecular Red, expressed a similar notion of becoming comrades; that is, ‘comrades are the ones with which we share life’s task of shoring up its impossible relation to a recalcitrant world.’
I believe that this Marxist-compatible Pascalian/Platonovian understanding of belief is how we as socialists overcome our deeply felt and deeply reasoned pessimism, and once again act not merely to understand the world, but to change it. That is, that we must act in concert, in hope, and always looking to a new basis for human self-becoming (necessarily, with the working class as a class in and for itself taking the lead). In such struggles, as Platonov believed no less than Marx, we change ourselves in a quite Pascalian manner.
Pessimism is and always will be the attitude of the right; optimism (if tempered, shared, and genuine) remains revolutionary.