Optimism in light of pessimism
So why be optimistic? This theme came up in a previous diary, and I’d like to revisit it, because I rather doubt that my previous answer satisfied my reading audience. The idea that we can be optimistic about the fate of the human race because of “human versatility” leaves a lot of questions unanswered. How are we going to solve all of our problems?
CAVEAT: I’m not going to solve all of those problems here. This is a LITERARY essay — it suggests a basis for moving forward, rather than a quick fix.
Why would anyone want to be an optimist in this era? One can easily pick from news items to find a good number of reasons why one shouldn’t be optimistic, and so for instance from vice.com we have this:
Some Credible Scientists Believe Humanity Is Irreparably Close to Destruction
Here’s how it rolls out:
There have always been doomsday prophets and cults around and everyone has their own personal view of how the apocalypse will probably go down (ascension of pure souls, zombie crows), but in the midst of all of the Mayan Calendar/Timewave Zero/Rapture babble, there are some clarion calls coming from a crowd that’s less into bugout bags and eschatology: well-respected scientists and journalists who have come to some scarily-sane sounding conclusions about the threat of human-induced climate change on the survival of the human species.
VL Baker’s most recent diary has a curious graph front and center on the most significant probable cause of doom: global warming. See that sharp turn upward? Yeah, that’s you and me dying. It’s easy to dismiss the “doomsday people.” They’ve predicted the end of the world before, and it didn’t happen. But what happens when the doomsday people have the facts on their side?
And it’s easy enough to imagine that the facts we know are not depressing enough, not when there are nineteen feedback loops that speed up climate change. Have the scientists calculated the forcing capabilities of all of them?
While we’re looking at ecological mass death, we can only imagine what will happen to the radioactivity spread worldwide by the daily spread of 300 tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. The pollution will be seen largely to hit the west coast of the United States. It’s only going to get worse.
In that previous diary I mentioned, I discussed my optimism about the human predicament. Optimism in this era appears as a rather defective product, something that was cobbled together by a cherry-picked view of the facts of life in the era of late late capitalism. But I don’t stand with the optimists because I’m trying to deny the facts of life in this era, which (when presented in a meaningful way) give the appearance of a global reality in steady deterioration. Rather, my optimism is compromised by an acceptance of those facts. Gopal Balakrishnan explains it in these terms:
We are entering into a period of inconclusive struggles between a weakened capitalism and dispersed agencies of opposition, within delegitimated and insolvent political orders. The end of history could be thought to begin when no project of global scope is left standing, and a new kind of ‘worldlessness’ and drift begins. This would conform to Hegel’s suspicion that at this spiritual terminus, the past would be known, but that a singular future might cease to be a relevant category. In the absence of organized political projects to build new forms of autonomous life, the ongoing crisis will be stalked by ecological fatalities that will not be evaded by faltering growth.
This in fact seems to be the standard future, and the Pentagon has at least developed the foresight to plan for it:
Pentagon bracing for public dissent over climate and energy shocks
NSA Prism is motivated in part by fears that environmentally-linked disasters could spur anti-government activism
Climate change is part of the Pentagon’s concept of “security threats”: it’s coloring their negative scenarios in an important way.
One of the Pentagon’s top strategists said climate change is fundamentally altering how the Defense Department (DOD) evaluates future conflict areas.
Now that they have that “total information awareness” stuff in place, it’ll be just the tool for them for when all hell breaks loose with global warming. But it isn’t just global warming that provokes the Powers That Be in their paranoia.
So, in respect of the bad future that is the vogue product of today’s arts of crisis prediction, let’s consider the other crises lining up for our consideration.
On the narrowly-economic front, we can read about five reasons why austerity hurts today and will hurt even more tomorrow. Austerity is, of course, the last gasp of what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine,” in which profit-making entities crash economies so they can increase profits.
When considering economic realities, one should start with the global economic growth rate, which has been declining for four decades now. A consequence of the decline in economic growth in the 1970s was the financialization of the economy, which (in texts from Kees van der Pijl’s Global Rivalries from the Cold War to Iraq to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine to Dumenil and Levy’s Capital Resurgent) is called “neoliberalism.” The point of neoliberalism, as one can see from a reading of Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste or Harry Shutt’s The Trouble With Capitalism, is to maintain the rate of profit amidst this uneven but (in the long run) steady decline in the global economic growth rate. To paraphrase that great orator of the 1980s Left, Jesse Jackson, hope must be kept alive, but, in true conservative fashion, hope is being kept alive for the richest 7% of the population at the expense of everyone else.
The main mechanism of what Mirowski calls “the neoliberals” is economic restructuring. At times my diaries attract readers who confuse neoliberalism with the rise of the “laissez-faire” economic doctrines which attained a vogue with the rise of Reagan and Bush. Such doctrines are preached but not granted any real attention in this era, because they are really just fodder for the masses.
Constant and increasing government attention has been needed over the past forty years to maintain the global economic house of cards in an era of declining growth — the ideological aegis of the global “free market” is needed to subordinate people to markets, so that more and more of society can be made into a conduit for corporate profits. So what we have is “market reform” of a continuous and increasingly interventionist kind, from NAFTA to the WTO to the 1996 Welfare Bill to the end of Glass-Steagall to the bank bailouts to Dodd-Frank to the Race to the Top’s promotion of charter schools to the ACA. In Europe, of course, the “debtor” nations are forced to institute austerity planning while the slightly-less insolvent Germany barely comes in on the plus side of the growth ledger. “Market reform” in this era seeks to preserve markets for rich people rather than humanizing them, and (given the intellectual bankruptcy of the whole scheme), increasingly intensive philosophical, political, and other propaganda regimes must be deployed to maintain the loyalty of the masses.
Political elections reflect the uniformity of the drive to market preservation. For instance in last year’s US Presidential election one could observe the winning margin obtained through a massive swing-state anti-Romney effort from the Obama campaign, while an overall majority of Romney voters appeared not to care who Romney was as long as he wasn’t Obama. There’s a certain flavor of desperation to a nationwide election which promises the great bulk of the people a better candidate than “the other guy,” while the agendas of both sides share a scary similarity amidst their real differences.
But I suppose whoever is in power will have to sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Grand Bargain somehow, when it actually passes. We can therefore expect more of “the Republicans would have done far worse!” and “The Democrats are bad (except not in the ways in which they really are bad)!”
On the narrowly-psychological front, Bruce E. Levine has an interesting observation: living in America will drive you insane. Now, much of Levine’s definition of “insane” is worth examination — people are becoming “insane” under an increasingly tight straitjacket of “sane” behavior. But his general conclusion fits the thesis here:
When we have hope, energy and friends, we can choose to rebel against societal oppression with, for example, a wildcat strike or a back-to-the-land commune. But when we lack hope, energy and friends, we routinely rebel without consciousness of rebellion and in a manner in which we today commonly call mental illness.
The education front in America (if not elsewhere) reveals that going to school is no longer about learning anything. Rather, education is now about money. When our economy is caught between increasing corporate demands for profit amidst a global growth rate declining to zero, education (like all services receiving government money) becomes a corporate cash cow. K-12 education becomes the site of the charter school movement, with the school-to-prison pipeline as a disciplinary cudgel to keep the passive audience of young people in line and to feed further profits to the prison industries. College education becomes the site of $1 trillion in student loan debt — and what are the folks in government claiming to be worried about? The interest on the debt! Never mind that the debt itself is expanding at astronomical rates.
So with job prospects increasingly bleak and student loans both impossible to discharge through bankruptcy and growing onerously with the withdrawal of the states from education funding, college, like K-12 education, has become about money. It has become another game in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And this isn’t to take into account what the new Obama plan for colleges will do to them.
Even on the narrowly-healthcare front we can say that even though the new law will help some people, any morass of regulation that complex is likely to develop more in the wrong direction than in the right one. Medical bankruptcy will still be a big thing here in the US.
So, indeed, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about this era. But my prognosis is optimistic. However, so far I’ve only explained my optimism in terms of my trust in the versatility of the human species — I cam convinced that we are versatile enough to work our way out of our current predicament. But I’ve never really explained how I think our versatility will “play out” in terms of the multiple crises of the current era. Below the fold, I will examine optimisms, past and present, to see what can be applied from them in an era which tends toward despair.
I’d like to start by looking optimism through the literary lens of Kenneth Burke’s classic essay “Literature as Equipment for Living.” For Burke, a literary work was the “strategic naming of a situation,” and so we read, whatever it is we read, in order to find strategic namings which might fit the situations we face. Literature gives us ideas.
Literary works, which we may define broadly as any written work with something to say to us, can reveal the secrets of our versatility by revealing to us strategies for coping, and attitudes for holding, which we might apply to the plight which faces us today.
Optimism and pessimism, after all, are attitudes, and pessimism, as is appropriate to this era, reflects the failure of strategies which I’ve explored in previous diaries. Most directly: saving capitalism for a dying planet, a failed strategy which appeared in a diary of mine of mid-2007. If we continue to save capitalism for a dying planet, we will end up with neither a living planet nor capitalism, and so the appropriate attitude toward such a strategy is pessimism.
The attitude I’ve chosen to discuss here is: optimism in the face of despair. Is it good or bad? The advocacy of pessimism paints the optimist as a stupid fool — the optimist, however, sticks to sunniness as a sort of psychological glue, sometimes in the face of daunting conditions.
The quintessential piece of anti-optimist literature would be Voltaire’s (1759) short novel Candide, which was largely written to ridicule the philosopher Leibniz’s maxim that “we live in the best of all possible worlds.” Candide, subtitled “or Optimism,” is largely the tale of the “adventures” of its naive protagonist, Candide, as well as of Candide’s mentor, Pangloss, who believes that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” Candide’s love interest, Cunegonde, and a Spanish philosopher named Martin, a pessimist whose philosophy is the opposite of Pangloss’s. From “Candide” we get the term Panglossian, which means “excessively optimistic.”
All sorts of horrible things happen to Candide, to Pangloss, to Martin, and to Cunegonde, and Voltaire spices up the narrative by occasionally having good things happen to them, the better to keep them alive so they can suffer further in later chapters. Readers of Candide are led to suspect, then, that this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, not by a long shot. Readers might also suspect some truth to Martin’s observation that the world is full of bad things — earthquakes, war, torture, and so on — but that there really isn’t any hope to be found in Martin’s pessimism, either.
Voltaire’s direct opinion on optimism is given in a brief essay titled “Well, Everything is Well” (trans. from “Bien, Tout et Bien”):
This system of all is well represents the author of all nature as a potent, malicious king, who never worries if his designs mean death for four or five hundred thousand of his subjects, and poverty and tears for the rest, as long as they gratify him.
Far from consoling, the best of all possible worlds doctrine is a doctrine of despair for those who embrace it.
Thus, of course, we can say that it’s a gesture of despair to put a smiley-face on a world that’s genuinely bad; real progress means effectively making the world a better place.
Another fictional character who spends her time putting smiley-faces on bad situations is the protagonist of Eleanor H. Porter’s (1913) children’s book, Pollyanna. This is the story of an orphaned girl named Pollyanna, who plays a game with herself called the Glad Game. The Glad Game is a game of trying to find something to be glad about in every situation. A “pollyanna,” from the dictionary, is “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything.”
The plot of Pollyanna goes somewhat along these lines: Pollyanna is sent off to live with her dour Aunt Polly in a small town in Vermont, which she brightens up by teaching everyone in town the Glad Game. Toward the end of the book, Pollyanna is caught in a horrible accident and loses the use of her legs.
The story of Pollyanna thereafter reveals the Glad Game as a defensive gesture. At one point, Pollyanna is told she may never walk again. After she recovers from her depression, she reacts as follows:
“Oh, I’m so glad,” she cried. Then, suddenly, a wonderful light illumined her face. “Why, Aunt Polly, there is something I can be glad about, after all. I can be glad I’ve had my legs, anyway…” (240)
We might as well be glad for something good that happened, since nothing else will support optimism. This, then, is one purpose of the Glad Game — making the best of a bad deal.
A modern treatise on optimism would have to be Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2009) “Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America“.
As with “Candide,” this is a treatise against the cult of “positive thinking,” rather than an endorsement of pessimism per se. This is more history and pop sociology than literature — Ehrenreich goes from her personal experience as a cancer survivor to discussions of history and sociology. Here is the passage that I read as the core of Ehrenreich’s thinking:
If the generic “positive thought” is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own. The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence. Those who set themselves up as instructors in the discipline of positive thinking — coaches, preachers, and gurus of various sorts — have described this effort with terms like “self-hypnosis,” “mind control,” and “thought control.” In other words, it requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and “negative” thoughts. The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts. (5-6)
From this line of attack, Ehrenreich goes on to criticize Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, Norman Vincent Peale and “The Power of Positive Thinking,” the business of business motivation, and, ultimately, the sense of business optimism that (she thinks) led to the Great Depression of 2008-2009. She is most clearly against the “magical thinking” inspired by the cult of positive thinking. Positive thinking will not by itself change your world or bring you great wealth or improve society or save the economy or win the war in Iraq or transform your personality so that you are no longer screwed up. Moreover, to think that positive thinking will do these things is another facet of being screwed up. In fact, positive thinking may keep you from finding out how-exactly you are to do those things. This is so because positive thinking is not critical thinking, nor will it substitute for critical thinking.
Our optimism does us no good if it prevents us from changing the world for the better, though it might give us the emotional fortitude to continue in our activist work. Its main virtue in the light of pessimism is that it makes a great defensive sally in light of those things about the world we cannot change. Pangloss looks stupid — his name, as literary critic William F. Botiglia suggests, means “windbag” — but that’s because his philosophy looks all wrong when set against Voltaire’s canvas of disasters. Pollyanna, on the other hand, seems to have a handle on things.
“Mind control” can in fact benefit us if our brains are doing stupid things. It might serve us well, for instance, to use “mind control” if we are alcoholics trying to stop drinking or if we have irritable bowel syndrome and are trying to minimize our symptoms. “Positive thinking,” however, will not benefit us if it is merely an adjunct to a pessimistic ideology (such as, say, Calvinist elitism) that rests in our brains. It moreover doesn’t serve us well if we, each individually and all of us collectively, imagine that life for us personally is going to get better when at the same time we also see that life for most everyone else is going to get worse. We are that “everyone else” whose life is getting worse.
To imagine that we will be happy if we tell ourselves we’re happy is to confuse our whole existence with our intentions at any particular moment. The point of my list of trends above the squiggly was that it will take all of the versatility of the human species to produce a successful outcome from our whole existence — so we had better use that versatility while we are trying to be happy.
If I were to play the Glad Game with the world’s current predicament, I could go on forever. I’m especially glad, however, that there are a great variety of resources we have for building the post-capitalist world — the people, the natural environment, the vast fund of knowledge we’ve built up since we started recording it on papyrus a few millenia ago. The problem, of course, is that all of this is potential — we still have to create a new society before the old one does away with us.
Eventually optimism will give our lives purpose. What we need now, more than anything at this stage of history, is critical thinking. Look, if complainers and pessimists produce critical thinking, then so be it. We can at least be optimistic about the spread of complaint and pessimism throughout the world — maybe, if properly nurtured, all of the complaint and pessimism will produce something good. “We must cultivate our garden,” as Candide says at the end of “Candide.”
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