'Optimism Over Despair' and ​'Hope Without Optimism'

This green read explores hope, and considers these two books by Chomsky and Eagleton

'Optimism Over Despair; on capitalism, empire and social change' Noam Chomsky (and CJ Polychroniou), was published by Penguin, 2017

'Hope Without Optimism' Terry Eagleton, was published by Yale University Press, 2017

This Green Read considers two books. Two things drew me to them. First, I was seduced by a pair of clever pieces of marketing: one, a title which proves a little misleading; and two, their co-location on an art gallery bookshop shelf. Ever the dutiful consumer, I bought both books. Second, having re-read John Foster’s thoughtful chapter, arguably the most crucial piece in Green House’s plea that we must face up to climate reality (Foster, 2019), I wanted to explore its topic, hope, in greater depth.

I shall consider Chomsky’s book first. Noam Chomsky is, as well as being a pioneer in linguistics, arguably one of the world’s most influential radical thinkers. In that guise he has published over a hundred books, usually fairly short pamphlets and sometimes, collections of essays. His arguments usually involve a few key strands. One of these is the ‘institutional analysis’ of government and corporate policy decisions. For instance, in What Uncle Sam really wants, Chomsky utilises persuasively many government policy documents to argue that US Foreign Policy is primarily motivated by, and an expression of, narrow US self-interest. On the other hand, contributions such as Manufacturing Consent focus on corporate power and its misuse of information to generate compliance in the populace. It also suggests a strong connection between US state and corporate power. Thus, Chomsky has offered a systems-based theory of how the world works. Using that theory, he is able to offer explanations of US interventions into Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

Optimism over despair applies Chomsky’s analytical schema to a range of topics, some of which he has explored elsewhere. This is done through a series of twenty-two interviews with CJ Polychroniou, conducted between 2013 and 2017. These cover a wide range of topics including the breakdown of Europe, the collapse of American society, President Trump, the US health care system, market-driven education and the prospects for socialism in the US. As is usual for Chomsky, his analysis is damning, his prognoses stark. I shall not go into detail of either here since, in many ways, they re-tread old ground, and because many of the topics could be discussed in any forum. What is there of particular interest to Green House readers in Optimism over despair?

First, let us confront the title, which I described as a clever piece of marketing. In fact, the book only fleetingly considers the notion of optimism, or despair. He does ascribe Trump’s election partly to “deep feelings of anger, fear, frustration, [and] hopelessness” (p. 5, emphasis added) on the part of large swathes of the US population. Indeed, most of the book is typically downbeat, whether it be for prospects of cohesion in the US or for tackling global warming. On the latter, Chomsky identifies a parade of seemingly irresistible forces preventing meaningful action, including the extensive funding of climate denialism and religious fundamentalism. As he always does, though, Chomsky avoids fatalism, exploring the possibilities for resistance. Here he cites Gramsci’s optimism of the will. Rather oddly, his initial examples of likely routes out of the crisis include home weatherisation, decarbonisation technologies, nuclear fusion and other technological fixes. These he justifies by saying: “Anything feasible and potentially effective ought to be explored” (p. 134). Eventually, though, and consistent with the rest of the book, he takes a realistic position that without fundamental value change, i.e. away from those prevailing under capitalism, prospects for averting crisis are poor. The book pre-dates Extinction Rebellion so does not convey his view on that, but Chomsky’s previous work, for instance on Occupy, confirms that he sees possibilities for change in such popular protest movements.

What grounds, then, for optimism over despair, which is the title of the book’s final essay? Quite simply, Chomsky claims:

“We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist, and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice” (p. 196).

Terry Eagleton is another name established in radical circles, in his case as an expert in literary criticism, bringing to bear a strand of Marxism to offer insights on modernism, postmodernism, ideology and capitalism. However, it is perhaps his work on tragedy (Sweet Violence) or on the intersection of critique, philosophy and religion (Reason, Faith and Revolution) which are most relevant to reading Hope without optimism.

It is not possible to say whether Eagleton has read Chomsky’s book, but one can speculate on what he might think of elements of it. Specifically, Hope without optimism opens powerfully with a series of arguments establishing the banality of optimism, to which he devotes Chapter 1. Optimism is “a primordial stance toward the world…which lights up the facts from its own peculiar angle and is thus resistant to being refuted by them” (p. 2). Optimism is a biased view, a predisposition to believing the best outcome will occur, a belief that belief is enough to change the world for the better. “As such, [the optimist] fails to take the point that one must have reasons to be happy” (p. 2). How one looks at the glass which contains liquid equivalent to fifty per cent of its volume is purely arbitrary, hardly a judgement at all. The same, he argues, can be said for pessimism.

Optimism and pessimism are, then, neither virtue or vice, as both are quirks of temperament. That is not to say that they do not have effects, some positive, others negative. For instance, Eagleton says that a positive attitude can increase one’s chances of recovering from serious illness. However, as Ehrenreich (2009) shows, generalising from concrete cases can lead to toxic positivity which becomes repressive; or in some cases, self-destructive or delusional, for instance by treating cancer as a gift. As Eagleton argues, optimists often believe in overarching progress (Progress), which can be self-harming to people as it blinds them to the reality of their situation. As such, “optimism is a typical component of ruling-class ideologies” (p. 4). This is more manifest in some countries than others. Cuttingly, Eagleton claims that “Along with North Korea, the United States is one of the few countries on earth in which optimism is almost a state ideology” (p. 10), which he describes as “a compulsive cheeriness…an I-can-do-anything-I-want-rhetoric which betrays a quasi-pathological fear of failure” (p. 10). But this leads to an oppressive culture in which “[r]eality is a pessimist to whose treasonable talk one must shut one’s ears” (p. 11).

Hope, on the other hand, involves a “strenuous commitment” (p. 1) arising from “deep reflection of disciplined study”, needing to be “underpinned by reasons” (p. 3). Ultimately, “[h]ope must be fallible, as temperamental cheerfulness is not” (p. 3). “True hope is needed most when the situation is at its starkest, a state of extremity that optimism is generally loath to acknowledge” (p. 5). Hope does not permit the fatalism of either pessimism or optimism, which presuppose a world in which outcomes are pre-determined and in which things will work out badly or well, but “for no good reason whatsoever” (p. 12). Here, readers familiar with John Foster’s chapter on hope will see strong resonance. Facing up to climate reality requires realism, i.e. an understanding of how the structure of reality makes some possibilities much more likely than others. Specifically, it means that avoiding catastrophic climate change seems impossible. However, by understanding the world – realistically – as one in which the future is open, one can see reasons for hope in which meaningful change is possible, however unlikely. Eagleton sums this up, thus: “For there to be genuine hope, the future must be anchored in the past. It cannot simply irrupt into it from some metaphysical outer space. At the same time, the yeast-like powers at work in the present do so in a way that finally surpasses its limits, pointing to a condition beyond our current imaginings” (p. 38). After all, ten years ago, President Trump and Brexit were considered by most sensible observers to be impossible.

Eagleton explores this basic argument throughout the book. Influenced as he is by Marxism, Christianity and Literature, he is able to weave together an impressive array of sources. For instance, he contrasts Brontë, Eliot and Dickens with Hardy, in that the latter observed an “unswerving tragic realism”. Self-styled ‘rational optimists’ such as Matt Ridley are criticised for a selective (optimistic) reading of history, in which “slavery, sweatshops, political despotism and colonialist genocide [are] passed over” (p. 15). Steven Pinker suffers similarly, as one who “drastically plays down the dangers of climate change” (p. 22).

Eagleton does not only attack liberal optimists, aiming his fire also at Trotsky’s unrealistic vision of a communist future. Chapter 3 is devoted entirely to the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, for whom Eagleton reserves much of his most intense criticism. Bloch’s “The Principle of Hope is in search of a form of Marxism that would rival the depth and scope of religion while serving as a critique of it” (pp. 92-3) that is “crammed with a profuse variety of odds and ends, but also represents the mother of all metanarratives” (p. 94). Hope built into the world (p. 95) hints at benevolent determinism (pp. 95-6); humanity does not create hope but marshals resources inherently in place already (p. 98); combines a teleology with a belief in free will (p. 99); idolises the future, perhaps as insulation against the terrors of the present (p. 105).

Before critiquing Bloch, Eagleton’s Chapter 2 offers a thorough exploration of the history of the concept of hope. He notes that hope had fallen out of fashion for those on the right and left of politics, as naïve or as a “therapeutic fiction” (Alexander Pope) or “hollow-cheeked harlot” (Lord Byron), favoured by “fools who lack deliberation” (Thomas Aquinas) and likely to lead us astray (Plato). However, Eagleton discusses at length the relation between hope and desire, noting that for many, hope is desire plus expectation; and crucially, that though hope does not focus on the probable, “it does indeed hinge on the possible” (p. 45). Possible does not, though, mean easy: rather, hope must be hard to attain (Aquinas). It must also be a consistent position, belonging “to a form of life rather than being simply a one-off event” (p. 57).

But what is hope? In offering a wide discussion encompassing Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant and many in-between, Eagleton teases the reader somewhat by eschewing a clear set of conclusions. This is, after all, a monograph not a textbook. Nonetheless, certain strands are evident. Hope is a connection between the present and future, in which the future is open, yet to be determined. Yet, it must be based in reality, for one “cannot hope for what one is sure will not happen” (p. 78). In this respect, Eagleton connects hope to radical politics, since “[t]rue hopelessness would be when such imaginings were inconceivable” (p. 85).

Eagleton’s book, echoing elements of his other work, engages seriously with Christian thought. Here, frankly, I will avoid any discussion of that, except in one respect: hope and its connection to tragedy. For Eagleton, Christianity has a hope (actually, a certainty) of eternal life, which emerged from the death of Christ. Eagleton begins chapter 4 with an evocative description of a Crow chief, Plenty Coups, who, when faced with the tragedy of the imminent collapse of his tribe’s way of life, was forced to look into the future in ways unimaginable to his people. For him, to hope was “to recognise that there were possibilities that surpassed what could currently be conceived” (p. 112). As Eagleton puts it: “The decisions that the chief confronted were not ones that could be reasoned about in existing moral terms’ (p. 113). Plenty Coups had what Jonathon Lear calls Radical Hope, in which those who have it can anticipate a good even though they do not understand it. Significantly, Lear notes that cultures typically do not “train their young to ensure [their] own breakdown” (Lear, 2006, p. 83). Thus, “an ability to conceive of its own destruction will generally be one of its blindspots” (Eagleton, p. 113). The parallels with catastrophic climate change are pretty obvious, particularly in the context of democratic dysfunction, nationalism and so-called ‘post-truth’ (among other things). The task for the green thinker is therefore twofold: to grasp the real tragedy of our situation and yet to imagine futures which sit beyond the realms of conventional thinking but not beyond the bounds of the possible. Thus, for green campaigners, whilst a sunny disposition might be very welcome and helpful in energising activists, what is needed is something much deeper. Overall, then:

“Hope can acknowledge loss or destruction to be unavoidable, which is where it differs from some currents of optimism, yet still refuse to capitulate” (p. 130).

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