Between Optimism and Pessimism: Reflecting on 2011

To say that 2011 has been an important year in politics would be an understatement of the grandest order. In the past 12 months, we’ve seen a generation radicalized, streets reclaimed, communities mobilized, and new solidarities formed on a truly global scale. All the assumptions that once guided our political lives seem open to renegotiation; axiomatic truths have receded and are now faced with powerful calls for meaning; challenge, consideration, and debate have, at least in my circles, become an everyday occurrence–a truly organic intellectualism seems to be unfolding, and it’s exhilarating.

But with such openness and contingency comes the very real experience of confusion. Zizek, as he usually does, says it best when we writes:

Today we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequence of non-action could be disastrous. We will be forced to live ‘as if we were free.’ We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss, in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the new, just to keep the machinery going and maintain what was good in the old—education, healthcare, basic social services. In short, our situation is like what Stalin said about the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves. Or as Gramsci said, characterizing the epoch that began with the First World War, ‘the old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

It seems fitting, then, as we come to the end of this tremendous year, to make some attempt at stability by way of reflection; to think about what this year and its changes have meant, what new ways of thinking they have opened us to, and what paths we might break as we continue to step toward the abyss that Zizek so presciently points out.

If there is a phrase that has served me well this year in thinking about the world and my place within it, it comes from German revolutionary and organic intellectual par excellence, Heinrich Blucher. Blucher and his wife, Hannah Arendt, lived in the passionate pursuit of thought, working tirelessly throughout their academic careers to secure spaces within which we might make ethical judgments, free of the burden of programmatic, mechanistic, or procedural politics. Having witnessed and fled the horrors of Nazi rule, and perhaps more devastatingly, the ways in which average citizens can become tragically complicit in evil and wrongdoing, they consistently inveighed against declaring allegiance to any ossified political position, yet were themselves politically active throughout their lives. How does one balance the two? How are we to refuse a means-and-ends politics that closes down the possibility of thought and dissent while still finding a route to action? More generally, how do we even retain the category of ‘action’ in the absence of ends? Doesn’t action imply the achievement of a thing? Blucher sums up this tense position and the politics that it implies in a wonderful, pithy phrase that I think we would do well to bear in mind as we enter 2012:

Pessimists are cowards. Optimists are fools.

I think that 2011 has proven Blucher quite right. The stubborn resilience of the Occupy movement, for example, continues to prove early skeptics incorrect, offering us a real reason for hope in grim times. They called us spoiled, incoherent, deadbeat losers in an attempt to dismiss out of hand our righteous indignation at the excesses of capital. But in the mere three months since protesters first took to Zucotti Park in New York, as Canadian activist Judy Rebick recently noted at Media Democracy Days Vancouver, the occupiers have done more to change political discourse than the organized left has in forty years. The early pessimism of the naysayers, to me, was little more than bourgeois pearl-clutching; a knee-jerk reaction to the unpleasantness of anger and inequality. Take the Occupy Vancouver site, for instance. Vancouver is home to the nation’s richest and poorest area codes. The income gap here is acute and devastating, fuelled by the ongoing financialization of our housing market, which transforms livable homes into nothing but vacant sinks for global capital. Every night, there are hundreds of people sleeping on city streets, no homes to return to, no shelters in which to find refuge, no end in sight to the gutting of their neighbourhoods in the name of private wealth. Yet this homelessness only seemed to become a problem for our city’s rich when it converged in front of the art gallery at the occupy site.

Suddenly confronted with the sheer unpleasantness of homelessness, poverty, and inequity, many turned away from the movement, called for the demolition of the encampment, decried fire hazards and public safety threats, recycled the same tired complaints about the protesters’ ‘lack of message’ (as if we’re all supposed to be policy experts with PR degrees). A suffocating pessimism spread across the surface of the city’s political discourse, like a fungus spreading out over a stone- an utterly shallow and opportunistic critique that managed to swallow the spirit of the protest; a pessimism that, following Blucher’s words, was simply cowardice parading in political robes. It was nothing but an unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of a critique that it would be more pleasant not to hear. Hundreds of people sleeping on the streets is fine, as long as no one has to look at it, apparently (see Michael Stewart’s amazing column on this for Rabble.ca).

Likewise, however, it would be irresponsible to accept optimism on its own as some kind of political ethos. To rework the example already given, the Occupy movement, while inspiring, is rife with internal injustices that are constantly at risk of being marginalized by cries such as “We Are the 99%” How are we to take seriously, within spaces of communal action, the ontological fact of human difference? How can we claim that we are all united in our subjugation to global capital when racism, ableism, misogyny, transphobia, heteronormativity, and colonialism continue to commit violences against marginalized communities with a disproportionate frequency and severity? How do we remain reflexive about the fact that the language of “Occupy” itself resonates with an ongoing history of colonial oppression that continues to devastate indigenous communities? How can we claim that we’re ‘United’ when people of colour are still specifically targeted by the systemic racism of the legal, penal, political, and economic frameworks that we live with (in a video of OWS that I watched a while back, a young black man named Malik put it best: ‘If white people have a cold, black people have the flu’)? How can we create safe spaces for political action without addressing transphobia, gender violence, ableism, and other body-normative discourses and practices?

The short answer is: we can’t. Optimism is not an acceptable political strategy. Politics can’t depart from some sunshine radicalism that claims a kind of post-gender, post-race, post-sexuality, post-difference ethos. To do so is to is to reinscribe historical injustices, to maintain white, cis-male, able-bodied privilege, and to implicitly sneer down one’s nose at those who simply ‘don’t get’ the “99%” message. In an article that I came across last week on how to think about our current ecological crisis, author Alex Steffen writes:

…if we care about the planet, the most important thing we can do is start showing how good a future we still can have. That’s why, right now, optimism is a political act, and a radical one at that.

This is a risky proposition. Envisioning alternative futures is of course an important part of any political strategy. Acts of creativity and imagination resist the pessimism of prescriptive thinking. But they can’t be taken as politics in and of themselves. Optimism–daring to dream of how much more livable and equitable our future could be–seems to me a political practice open only to those not suffering now. Vision can’t come at the expense of active resistance, just as  resistance without vision is a blunt instrument. We have to imagine, but we also have to create; even as we build anew, we have to fight what remains.

So if optimism is for fools, and pessimism is for cowards, what’s left?

Between optimism and pessimism–between imagination and creation, and between construction and resistance–lies thought; that radically contingent domain where the injustices of the present are held in a dynamic tension with the tragedies of our past and the hopes for our future. It is the space, if occupy has done what I hope it has, that we inhabit right now, where revolution and reformation (beginning and continuing; imagining and fighting) have become coterminous even as they retain their conceptual specificity. The space of thought is one of uncertainty and contingency—qualities to which the Western political trajectory has been traditionally allergic, preferring the stability of administration, favoring metaphors of politics as making rather than as acting. To feel at home in this space is, in turn, challenging; it undermines itself at every point where it is momentarily stabilized. But its great virtue is its refusal of the pessimism-optimism binary. It asks us, rather than subscribing to anything, to consider as many things as possible, to crystallize a position out of those factors, and then proceed into political action from that position, while always remaining alert to its incompleteness.

This, to me, is radical. It is the kind of politics that can push back against the way that time and thought have been collapsed to the great benefit of those who create and support inequality. The police-media-government compact that has invested such tremendous effort in discrediting Occupy, for example, ensures an instant and perfect fidelity between the three parties, and so closes down on the possibility for dissent or critique. It becomes an absolute vacuum of meaning because it leaves nothing up for negotiation. It is truly radical, then, to explode that fidelity and force wedges into its weak points. This happens only through thought that waits, only by staking out some position beyond or between the automatic judgments implied by pessimism and optimism.

The opposite is thoughtlessness, a state that leads us to collectively mourn Christopher Hitchens while forgetting the war-mongering rhetoric he engineered to justify the US invasion of Iraq. Thoughtlessness allows us to arrogantly dismiss those living in indigenous communities such as Attawapiskat as ‘financially irresponsible’ while forgetting Canada’s ongoing history of brutal colonial subjugation. Thoughtlessness (armoured, of course, by coercion; by guns and tanks and the excesses of the military-industrial state) leads the Israeli government to build monuments to the memory of the Holocaust on lands cleared by massacre of Palestinian citizens. Thoughtlessness, in short, vaporizes all hope of remaining alert to both our past and our future, and so condemns us to repeat the mistakes of the former to the detriment of the latter.

So as we enter 2012 and reflect on the months we’ve left behind, I suppose the plea I’m making is as simple as it is daunting: a plea for thought. The choice between optimism and pessimism isn’t a choice. It’s a challenge to find something better.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Between Optimism and Pessimism: Reflecting on 2011 | Occupy Vancouver Voice


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