It has been a particularly depressing week on the news. From the violence of war to that of poverty, we lack no evidence that things are bad, perhaps getting worse. During commercials we are advised to seek-out prozac, isolated and pathologized for our sorrow.
We must not numb to the horror of the world, or turn a blind eye and pretend that “it’s all good.” It’s not. But at the same time we cannot end with the tale of despair and futility, taking the horror as evidence that we are incapable of something better. We must cultivate active hope, and turn it into a deeply political and subversive act.
Our global society is structured around competitive hoarding, manufactured scarcity and deprivation, hierarchy and distinction between the deserving and the undeserving. It’s tempting to blame the world’s troubles on “bad people”—greedy banksters, religious fundamentalists, corrupt politicians, choose your demon. But the greatest of horrors, including accelerating ecological catastrophe, are inherent to the racist and patriarchal imperialist-capitalist system that we create and re-create each day. Increasingly, we have come (or been led) to believe that this is as good as it gets, the best we can do as a hopelessly sinful species.
Capitalism is a system that demands the worst of our human capabilities. We are rewarded for greed, shamed for failure to accumulate and consume fashionably. We are taught to honor and strive to emulate those who have too much, deride those without enough. We bestow lavish wealth to those who steal what should belong to us all, and imprison those who are made desperate by destitution. We are directed to see our own worth as the ability to outdo others, to claim our strength in another’s weakness. We are trained in a logic and morality of numbers rather than people, to consider human sacrifice for an abstract market rational.
And perhaps most counter-intuitive, we are forced into apathy or fear of the “Other.” We turn to all sorts of justifications to normalize a world in which 165 million children are so malnourished that they are physically and cognitively stunted, and people are shot for crossing imagined boundaries in search of a livelihood. By perverted logic or emotional defense, we find ways to accept the extreme suffering that is always in our face, and it becomes simply routine to step-over the shelterless body bundled on cold cement. All while we are instructed to “be good people.”
Yet despite the savagery that our system demands, we still do not abandon our most innate drives for mutual-aid, compassion and solidarity. In fact, what is most evident all around us, all the time, is our incredible generosity, sensitivity to fairness and the wellbeing of others. In the greater part of what we do, we truly are the “good people” that we yearn to be. The real brilliance of the human spirit is that we reflect such a depth of selfless care and kindness in how we live together, even though we are conditioned to view ourselves as possessed above all by our self-interested “nature.”
In just observing our primary interactions, we might be reminded that we are completely capable of living in a society where cooperation, egalitarianism and democracy actually structure our work, daily lives, and local and global societies—where the best of our human attributes are cultivated, honored, incentivized. We are not short on the qualities necessary to organize systems that equitably meet human needs, including for joy, creative self-expression, leisure, voice and participation. As anthropologist David Graeber has suggested, the very foundation of all human sociability is a giving according to abilities and receiving according to needs. Liberatory visions might grow from recognizing our cooperative dependencies and their boundless potentials.
There is no need for naiveté in this task—contradiction and duality are built into the very essence of existence, and we will always have to strive against the worst in the human spirit. Nor is it helpful (or realistic) to passively hope for more enlightened selves in an abstract utopian future. Instead, we must actively make systems that motivate and inspire the most beautiful of our capabilities, and abandon those that bring-out the most wretched in us.
While the question of pragmatically organizing alternatives is a somewhat different topic, it should not strike us as so overwhelming given our creative problem-solving capacities, the types of social organization that have worked in the past, and currently existing (though systematically limited) possibilities. And there is no question that decisions being made right now will either deepen the most pernicious of corporate imperialist-capitalism, or move more towards, and open greater possibilities for, ecological-sanity, actual democracy, egalitarianism and demilitarization. Horizons of possibility can expand rapidly and dramatically, and what appears as socially and politically possible today should not limit our imaginations of what could be possible tomorrow—the Reagan-Thatcher revolution has much to teach us about that.
It is also true that our systems are deeply entrenched, and there are people at the top of our pyramids who will not simply hand over their power. We will only challenge the cruel modern structures of privilege and poverty if we overcome our collective disempowerment—that strange but pervasive sense that while we might be able to do anything as individuals (through neuroscience, or prayer, or good old hard-work, or whatever), together we are just a violent, greedy and generally lousy bunch.
Hope, the belief in better possibilities, lies within one another and collective struggle. Let’s allow our hearts to be broken by the horror we witness everyday, but let us also remember that the depth of our pain is the depth of our love. That love, in ourselves and reflected in others, should be all the evidence we need that the fight for a better world is never futile.
*Thanks to new friend and ally John Clarkfor inspiring the title of this article.