In 2017, hope without organising will be futile
The week between Christmas and New Year is usually dense with year-end listicles and think pieces offering their assessment of the most pressing issues and events in the past twelve months. The Guardian reminds us of all the viral videos while BuzzFeed follows up on what happens post-virality. It’s all very fucking tedious.
Of course, 2016 has been subject to an ongoing evaluation throughout the year. The “worst year ever” meme started rolling in January, and picked up considerable speed in June and then again November. By the time John Oliver wasted valuable explosives to blow up some giant numbers, it was a full on avalanche. “Fuck you, 2016” clarifies two things: the poverty of liberal logic (blaming a unit of time rather than practicing self-criticism), and the pervasiveness of the fantasy that time and progress enjoy a linear and linked relationship (instead of history being a cyclical contest).
Now there’s an active optimism in the assumption that 2017 will be better if we make it so. Some of this optimism is sensible, but for the most part it’s not based on anything real. There is no indication that everyone who thinks 2016 has gone to hell in a handcart is of the same mind as to how to make 2017 better. (The neo-nazi alt-right motivates itself with the idea that 2016 has been a bad year even though they are in the ascendency; their new year resolution is to strengthen fascism.) And there is certainly no sign that progressive forces wield sufficient power and influence to enact such improvements.
Such optimism is a force of habit — you can present an analysis which is unrepentantly negative, but after all that negativity you must offer hope from nowhere. (Trump actually did this by saying that although America is a mess because of “political correctness”, he — an unqualified, petulant narcissist — will make it better by building a wall and deporting Muslims.) The apparent need to believe in human progress — hope — is greater than the “worst year ever” meme. There’s a cringeworthy habit prevalent everywhere to the left of liberalism to look for silver linings and slivers of hope in order to justify our flawed strategies or mask the current weakness of our movements. Even as a facist took the White House, you rarely read an opinion piece that ended with “we are fucked”. The conclusion is almost always positive.
Those looking for hope will find very little reward in the coming year. If 2016 was a dumpster fire, 2017 is going to be a dumpster fire in a munitions factory. As for 2018, you can feel the heat from here.To illustrate this point, look at just one of the unfolding crises posing an existential threat to civilization, climate change, and look at the left’s response.
ICYM all climate change related news for the past several years: we are royally fucked. The question is just how severely and how soon. Essentially, it is a question of how many people we will let die and where. A 2°C warmer world, which is now almost inevitable by 2100, is beyond comprehension. That we are likely to slip into a feedback of warming which heats the planet 7°C is not only unimaginable, it’s not even worth trying to imagine. Yes, as the cartoon jokes, the climate crisis offers an opportunity — even an imperative — to reorganise the world in a way that is more in balance with the planet and meets the needs of everyone. But because the left has been unwilling or unable to organise sufficiently, that’s not what has happened.
Instead, discussions that should have been about what governments will do to avoid the collapse of human and natural systems have become Panglossian back-clapping exercises. The horror of the climate crisis and the ineptitude of the mainstream political response is so great that to function within the UN you have to choose between suspending reality or abandoning hope. A few revolutionary wonks are able to sacrifice their hope in order to see clearly and still go on fighting. But rather a lot of green groups are still addicted to hope, and, after the Paris Agreement, are clearly labouring under the belief that 2017 will be a great year for “climate action” (which doesn’t involve seizing the means of production). They have lost touch with reality, making their hope both sick and surreal. Hope in this context is synonymous with delusion.
The hopelessness of organising in UN spaces is so soul-destroying that many comrades no longer show up there. And that’s fine because although the cult of self-care can be annoying and hyper-individualistic, it’s pretty clear that if people can’t function in service of themselves then they can’t function in service of a cause. So people should be encouraged to find a site of struggle where they can best wage resistance, one where they are able to practice self-care in community and aid the movement. Unfortunately, many who leave UN spaces do so in pursuit of a hope they have projected onto some romanticised vision of “grassroots” organising. The inevitable disappointment with the messiness they find in imperfect, localised movements leads to another loss of hope.
I’ve never understood how to answer when people ask “what gives you hope?” Usually I stare at them blankly, which must be disappointing. I could produce an answer. Sunrises and croissants. My romanticised view of the Zapatista struggle. Progressive trance. The right measure of whisky. How ridiculously beautiful the world still is, in spite of everything. I could say something which would be true enough — for me anyway — and more satisfying than silence. But I don’t.
What do people expect when they ask this? Do they think somebody else will give them their hope, conjure it from somewhere they themselves can’t find? What sort of a hope would it be if you had no agency and responsibility in creating it? Of course, none of us are alone in the struggle, and as such it is up to the collective to create the conditions where hope can grow. But as individuals in a movement we can’t look at the challenges we face, conclude there’s no hope, and then lay down to die.
The only sure answer I have to the question of “what gives you hope” is: to hell with hope. I’m still organising, as countless others have and countless others will. It’s about the necessity of our collective liberation and survival. We either fight or we die. There is no ultimate victory, just perpetual struggle. Everything old shall be new again, and again: this is the eternal return of a sacred struggle. That should be all the hope you need for.