reading notes for Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit.
Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons
It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.
Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.
Changing the story isn’t enough in itself, but it has often been foundational to real changes. Making an injury visible and public is often the first step in remedying it, and political change often follows culture, as what was long tolerated is seen to be intolerable, or what was overlooked becomes obvious. Which means that every conflict is in part a battle over the story we tell, or who tells and who is heard.
“the recognition of how powerful are the altruistic, idealistic forces already at work in the world. Most of us would say, if asked, that we live in a capitalist society, but vast amounts of how we live our everyday lives—our interactions with and commitments to family lives, friendships, avocations, membership in social, spiritual, and political organizations—are in essence noncapitalist or even anticapitalist, full of things we do for free, out of love, and on principle.
In a way, capitalism is an ongoing disaster anticapitalism alleviates”
The assumption behind much disaster response by the authorities—and the logic of bombing civilians—is that civilization is a brittle façade, and behind it lies our true nature as monstrous, selfish, chaotic, and violent or as timid, fragile, and helpless. In fact, in most disasters most people are calm, resourceful, altruistic, and creative. And civilian bombing campaigns generally fail to break the will of the people, making them a waste as well as a crime against humanity.
joy is itself an insurrectionary force against the dreariness and dullness and isolation of everyday life. My own research was, I realized by its end, a small part of an enormous project going on among many disciplines—psychology, economics, neurobiology, sociology, anthropology, political science—to redefine human nature as something more communal, cooperative, and compassionate. This rescue of our reputations from the social darwinists and the Hobbesians is important, not to feel positive about ourselves but to recognize the radical possibilities that can be built on an alternative view of human nature.
But it’s important to emphasize that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” said James Baldwin. Hope gets you there; work gets you through. “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today,” said Malcolm X. And there is a long history of that work, the work to change the world, a long history of methods, heroes, visionaries, heroines, victories—and, of course, failures. But the victories matter, and remembering them matters too. “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,” said Martin Luther King Jr.
Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view
My favorite comment about political change comes from Zhou En-Lai, a high-ranking member of Chairman Mao’s government. Asked, in the early 1970s, about his opinion of the French Revolution, he answered, “Too soon to tell.” Some argue that he was talking about the insurrections of 1968, not the monarchy-toppling of 1789, but even then it demonstrates a generous and expansive perspective. To retain a sense that even four years later the verdict isn’t in is to live with more open-minded uncertainty than most people now can tolerate.
People adjust without assessing the changes. As of 2014, Iowa gets 28 percent of its electricity from wind alone, not because someone in that conservative state declared death to all fossil fuel corporations or overthrew anyone or anything, but because it was a sensible and affordable option. Denmark, in the summer of 2015, achieved 140 percent of its electricity needs through wind generation (and sold the surplus to neighboring countries). Scotland has achieved renewable energy generation of 50 percent and set a goal of 100 percent by 2020. Thirty percent more solar was installed in 2014 than the year before in the United States, and renewables are becoming more affordable worldwide—in some places they are already cheaper than fossil-fueled energy. These incremental changes have happened quietly, and many people don’t know they have begun, let alone exploded.
essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Zinn continues,
Those who doubt that these moments matter should note how terrified the authorities and elites are when they erupt. That fear signifies their recognition that popular power is real enough to overturn regimes and rewrite the social contract. And it often has. Sometimes your enemies know what your friends can’t believe. Those who dismiss these moments because of their imperfections, limitations, or incompleteness need to look harder at what joy and hope shine out of them and what real changes have emerged because of them, even if not always in the most obvious or recognizable ways.
Paul Goodman famously wrote, “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!” It’s an argument for tiny and temporary victories, and for the possibility of partial victories in the absence or even the impossibility of total victories
Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.”
Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.
hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say it because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency
What other stories can be told? How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.
Arundhati Roy said, “For many of us who feel estranged from mainstream politics, there are rare, ephemeral moments of celebration.” And there is far more to politics than the mainstream of elections and governments, more in the margins where hope is most at home.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” but the summations of the state of the world often assume that it must be all one way or the other, and since it is not all good it must all suck royally. Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
“Havel said then, “The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
Overcoming alienation and isolation or their causes is a political goal for the rest of us. And for the rest of us, despair is more a kind of fatigue, a loss of faith, that can be overcome, or even an indulgence if you look at the power of being political as a privilege not granted to everyone.
Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.
We achieved a global movement without leaders. There were brilliant spokespeople, theorists and organizers, but when your fate rests on your leader, you are only as strong, as incorruptible, and as creative as he—or, occasionally, she—is. What could be more democratic than millions of people who, via the grapevine, the Internet, and various assemblies from churches to unions to direct-action affinity groups, can organize themselves?
The African writer Laurens Van Der Post once said that no great new leaders were emerging because it was time for us to cease to be followers.
In his book The Principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch declares, “Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope its most dedicated benefactor” and speaks of “informed discontent which belongs to hope, because they both arise out of the No to deprivation.”
the fear is real, but its putative subject is false. In this sense, it is a safe fear, since to acknowledge the real sources of fear might itself be frightening, calling for radical questioning, radical change. This, I think, is how false hope and false fear become such a neat carrot and stick luring the democratic beast along to its own demise.
despair. Despair demands less of us, it’s more predictable, and in a sad way safer. Authentic hope requires clarity—seeing the troubles in this world—and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable
There are those who think that turning the official version inside out is enough. To say that the emperor has no clothes is a nice antiauthoritarian gesture, but to say that everything without exception is going straight to hell is not an alternative vision but only an inverted version of the mainstream’s “everything’s fine.” Then, failure and marginalization are safe
There are the elaborate theory hawkers, who invest their opponents with superhuman abilities that never falter and can never be successfully resisted—they seem obsessed with an enemy that never lets them go, though the enemy is in part their own fantasy and its fixity. There are those who see despair as solidarity with the oppressed, though the oppressed may not particularly desire that version of themselves, since they may have had a life before being victims and might hope to have one after. And gloom is not much of a gift. Then there are those whose despair is personal in origin, projected outward as political analysis. This is often coupled with nostalgia for a time that may never have existed or may have been terrible for some, a location in which all that is broken now can be imagined to have once been whole. It is a way around introspection
The focus on survival demands that you notice the tiger in the tree before you pay attention to the beauty of its branches. The one person who’s furious at you compels more attention than the eighty-nine who love you. Problems are our work; we deal with them in order to survive or to improve the world, and so to face them is better than turning away from them, from burying them and denying them. To face them can be an act of hope, but only if you remember that they’re not all there is.
Hope is not a door, but a sense that there might be a door at some point, some way out of the problems of the present moment even before that way is found or followed.
There’s a kind of activism that’s more about bolstering identity than achieving results, one that sometimes seems to make the left the true heirs of the Puritans. Puritanical in that the point becomes the demonstration of one’s own virtue rather than the realization of results. And puritanical because the somber pleasure of condemning things is the most enduring part of that legacy, along with the sense of personal superiority that comes from pleasure denied. The bleakness of the world is required as contrasting backdrop to the drama of their rising above.
Hopefulness is risky, since it is after all a form of trust, trust in the unknown and the possible, even in discontinuity.
Before a disease can be treated, it must be diagnosed. And you do not need to know the prescription before you diagnose a disease
you have to be able to see farther, to look elsewhere.
Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.
Pay attention to the inventive arenas that exert political power outside that stage or change the contents of the drama onstage. From the places that you have been instructed to ignore or rendered unable to see come the stories that change the world, and it is here that culture has the power to shape politics and ordinary people have the power to change the world. You can see the baffled, upset faces of the actors on stage when the streets become a stage or the unofficial appear among them to disrupt the planned program
You may be told that the legal decisions lead the changes, that judges and lawmakers lead the culture in those theaters called courtrooms, but they only ratify change. They are almost never where change begins, only where it ends up, for most changes travel from the edges to the center.
To be pushed to the edges is to be marginalized; to push your way back to the center is often to be defamed and criminalized. The edges are literally marginal—the margins—but they are also portrayed as dangerous and unsavory
These days I find myself using the term “safe dangers” for the easy targets onto which people displace their fears, since the true content of their fears may be unsavory or unsettling
In 1900, the idea that women should have the vote was revolutionary; now, the idea that we should not have it would seem cracked
I thought about this again when I was reading a superb story on the Pennsylvania townships seeking to abolish corporate personhood—the legal status that gives corporations a dangerous and undemocratic range of rights in the United States. It seemed like one of those ideas that might be migrating toward the center, but in ten years if Time magazine is questioning the shift from democracy to a sort of monarchy of corporations or the New York Times is reporting the overturning of the legal principles on which corporate hegemony rests, they won’t thank a bunch of radical professors or scruffy anticapitalist street activists who were being tear-gassed for arguing the point prematurely. There will never be a moment when someone in the Senate or on national TV news will say, “Those freaks in the underbrush saw the future when we on high were blind.” Instead, the perils of corporate personhood will become common sense, become what everyone always knew. Which is to say, stories migrate secretly. The assumption that whatever we now believe is just common sense, or what we always knew, is a way to save face. It’s also a way to forget the power of a story and of a storyteller, the power in the margins, and the potential for change
If it happens, it will come to look like it always was a good idea, and the first people to have espoused it will be forgotten, since they were kooks, extremists, and impractical dreamers. No one in the center will remember when they supported what now looks like bad science and bad engineering, just as few remember when they supported racial segregation or bans on mixed-race marriages. Their amnesia is necessary to their sense of legitimacy in a society they would rather not acknowledge is in constant change.
This is the way the world changes, as Dickens understood when he opened his most political novel with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It usually is.
Charter 77, the defiant manifesto issued on the New Year, some of whose signatories were key players in 1989. “It was not a bolt out of the blue, of course,” wrote Charter signatory and playwright Vaclav Havel long before he became president of a postcommunist Czechoslovakia, “but that impression is understandable, since the ferment that led to it took place in the ‘hidden sphere,’ in that semi-darkness where things are difficult to chart or analyze. The chances of predicting the appearance of the Charter were just as slight as the chances are now of predicting where it will lead.”
The fall of the Soviet Bloc was framed as the triumph of capitalism: capitalists increased their assertions that the “free market” was tantamount to democracy and freedom, and the 1990s would see the rise of neoliberalism. The Zapatistas chose to rise on the day that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, went into effect, opening US, Mexican, and Canadian borders. The Zapatistas recognized what a decade has proved: NAFTA was an economic death sentence for hundreds of thousands of small-scale Mexican farmers and, with them, something of rural and traditional life.
Zapatista scholar and activist Manuel Callahan points out that the Zapatistas did not come to turn back the clock to some lost indigenous dreamtime but to hasten the arrival of the future: “We Indian peoples have come in order to wind the clock and to thus ensure that the inclusive, tolerant, and plural tomorrow which is, incidentally, the only tomorrow possible, will arrive,” Marcos has said. “In order to do that, in order for our march to make the clock of humanity march, we Indian peoples have resorted to the art of reading what has not yet been written. Because that is the dream which animates us as indigenous, as Mexicans and, above all, as human beings. With our struggle, we are reading the future which has already been sown yesterday, which is being cultivated today, and which can only be reaped if one fights, if, that is, one dreams.”
“On January 1, 1996, the Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle was issued. It reads in part,
A new lie is being sold to us as history. The lie of the defeat of hope, the lie of the defeat of dignity, the lie of the defeat of humanity . . . In place of humanity, they offer us the stock market index. In place of dignity, they offer us the globalization of misery. In place of hope, they offer us emptiness. In place of life, they offer us an International of Terror. Against the International of Terror that neo-liberalism represents, we must raise an International of Hope. Unity, beyond borders, languages, colors, cultures, sexes, strategies and thoughts, of all those who prefer a living humanity. The International of Hope. Not the bureaucracy of hope, not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us. Not power with a new sign or new clothes. A flower, yes, that flower of hope.”
Though those who oppose it are sometimes called “globophobes” or “antiglobalization” activists, the term globalization can apply to many kinds of internationalization and border-crossing, and what we oppose is more accurately corporate globalization and its ideology, neoliberalism, or sometimes capitalism altogether
—I like the term global justice movement for this swarm of resistances and inspirations.
“The corporate agenda of NAFTA and related globalization treaties is demonstrated most famously by the case of MTBE, a gasoline additive that causes severe damage to human health and the environment. When California banned it, the Canadian corporation Methanex filed a lawsuit demanding nearly a billion dollars in compensation from the US government for profit lost because of the ban. Under NAFTA rules, corporations have an absolute right to profit with which local laws must not interfere. Poisoning the well is no longer a crime, but stopping the free flow of poison meets with punishment. Other examples of this kind of globalization include the attempts by multinational corporations to privatize water supplies and to patent genes, including the genes of wild and of traditionally cultivated plants—to lock up as commodities much of the basic stuff of life, in the name of free trade.
Young global justice advocates understand that, as is often said, globalization is war by other means.”
The global justice movement brought to the progressive/radical community what had long been missing: a comprehensive analysis that laid the groundwork for a broad coalition, for the common ground so absent from the movements of the 1970s and 1980s, which seemed to advance a single sector or pit one issue against another. This is, of course, in part because the globalizing corporations manage to be anti-environmental, antidemocratic, and a whole lot of other atrocities all at once. But the antiglobalization movement in its breadth, in its flexibility and its creativity seems, like the Zapatistas, a great step toward reinventing revolution. The year the Zapatistas stepped onto the world stage, the radical geographer Iain Boal had prophesied, “The longing for a better world will need to arise at the imagined meeting place of many movements of resistance, as many as there are sites of closure and exclusion. The resistance will be as transnational as capitalism.”
That first impulse everywhere on September 11 was to give blood, a kind of secular communion in which people offered up the life of their bodies for strangers. The media dropped its advertisements, leers, and gossip and told us about tragedy and heroism. Giving blood and volunteering were the first expression of a sense of connection; the flag became an ambiguous symbol of that connection, since it meant everything from empathy to belligerence. In Brooklyn that week, a friend reported, “Nobody went to work and everybody talked to strangers.” What makes people heroic and what makes them feel members of a community? I hoped that one thing to come out of the end of American invulnerability would be a stronger sense of what disasters abroad—massacres, occupations, wars, famines, dictatorships—mean and feel like, a sense of citizenship in the world.
A lot of activists seem to have a mechanistic view of change, or perhaps they expect what quack diet pills offer, “Quick and easy results guaranteed.” They expect finality, definitiveness, straightforward cause-and-effect relationships, instant returns, and as a result they specialize in disappointment, which sinks in as bitterness, cynicism, defeatism, knowingness. They operate on the premise that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction and regard the lack of one as failure
Effects are not proportionate to causes—not only because huge causes sometimes seem to have little effect, but because tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences. Gandhi said, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” But those stages unfold slowly
Saving suggests a laying up where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt; it imagines an extraction from the dangerous, unstable, ever-changing process called life on earth. But life is never so tidy and final. Only death is. Environmentalists like to say that defeats are permanent, victories temporary. Extinction, like death, is forever, but protection needs to be maintained. But now, in a world where restoration ecology is becoming increasingly important, it turns out that even defeats aren’t always permanent. Across the United States and Europe, dams have been removed, wetlands and rivers restored, once-vanished native species reintroduced, endangered species regenerated.
Activism isn’t reliable. It isn’t fast. It isn’t direct either, most of the time, even though the term direct action is used for that confrontation in the streets, those encounters involving lawbreaking and civil disobedience. It may be because activists move like armies through the streets that people imagine effects as direct as armies, but an army assaults the physical world and takes physical possession of it; activists reclaim the streets and occasionally seize a Bastille or topple a Berlin Wall, but the terrain of their action is usually immaterial, the realm of the symbolic, political discourse, collective imagination. They enter the conversation forcefully, but it remains a conversation. Every act is an act of faith, because you don’t know what will happen. You just hope and employ whatever wisdom and experience seems most likely to get you there