Even in the darkest of times we have the right to some illumination. -- Hannah Arendt
The threads of a general political and ideological crisis run deep in American history, and with each tweet and policy decision Donald Trump pushes the United States closer to a full-fledged fascist state. His words sting, but his policies can kill people. Trump’s endless racist taunts, dehumanizing expressions of misogyny, relentless attacks on all provisions of the social state and ongoing contempt for the rule of law serve to normalize a creeping fascist politics. Moreover, his criminogenic disdain for any viable sense of civic and moral responsibility gives new meaning to an ethos of selfishness and a culture of cruelty, if not terror, that has run amok. Yet it is becoming more difficult for the mainstream media and pundits to talk about fascism as a looming threat in the United States in spite of the fact that, as Michelle Goldberg observes, for some groups, such as "undocumented immigrants, it's already here.”
The smell of death is everywhere under this administration. The erosion of public values and the rule of law is now accompanied by a developing state of emergency with regards to a looming global environmental catastrophe. An ecological disaster due to human-caused climate change has accelerated under the Trump administration and appears imminent. Trump’s ongoing attempt to pollute the planet through his rollback of environmental protections will result in the deaths of thousands of children who suffer from asthma and other lung problems. Moreover, his privatized and punitive approach to health care will shorten the lives of millions of poor people, uninsured youth, undocumented immigrants, the unemployed and the elderly. His get-tough "law and order" policies will result in more police violence against blacks while his support for the arms industry, military budget and gun laws will accelerate the death of the marginalized both at home and abroad. Under the Trump regime all bets are off regarding the sustainability of democracy.
The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, a right-wing ideologue, to the U.S. Supreme Court, in spite of allegations of sexually assaulting at least two women, further reveals both the dangerous politicization of the judicial nomination process and the authoritarian politics that now dominate American society. The control of the court by ideological fundamentalists has been a long-sought goal of Republican Party extremists. And now the American people, especially women, the poor and people of color, will pay a terrible price for Kavanaugh’s appointment. The Kavanaugh affair is a symptom of the deeper roots of a fascist politics at work in American society. Kavanaugh is not only a blatant symbol of a toxic masculinity, he is also emblematic of a boisterous and unchecked expression of ruling-class white privilege. This is especially true given the racist double standard that characterizes America’s justice system. As Amanda Klonsky put it in the Chicago Sun Times:
Why does Judge Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual assault, feel entitled to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States, while my formerly incarcerated students — often jailed for crimes like battery from fistfights — are left unemployed, sometimes for life, banned from even the most entry-level work? That Kavanaugh is under consideration for appointment to the Supreme Court at all throws the racist double standard in our justice system into sharp relief. There is one standard of behavior for African-American and Latinx young people, who are harshly punished for crimes in adolescence, and quite another for wealthy white boys, who can be accused of sexual assault and still go on to be nominated to serve on the most important court in the world.
Kavanaugh perfectly aligns with Trump’s racism and his decisions on matters of civil rights and racial justice will more than likely further reproduce a long legacy of white racism and state violence in the United States. This is especially tragic and ominous given that Trump’s contempt for people of color appears boundless and legitimates the notion of whiteness as a site of terror. He slanders and humiliates black athletes, black women and any other person of color who calls him on his racism and white supremacist views. Moreover, his thuggery in support of police brutality and mass incarceration further accelerates the growth of a racialized carceral state.
Most recently, in a brutish and deeply troubling display of misogyny, Trump viciously mocked the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of a sexual assault. Drawing laughter and shouts from a crowd in Southaven, Mississippi, Trump went further, following up his vile remarks by stating that men were the real victims of the #MeToo movement because they were being unfairly accused of sexual harassment, and that many males would lose their jobs. It is hard to miss the irony of this statement coming from a man who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 22 women and has been caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the crotch. What is worth noting here is not only his indifference to the shocking levels violence waged against women but also the degree to which misogyny has always been endemic to fascist politics.
While it is easy for the mainstream press to go after those politicians who remain silent in the face of Trump’s sexism and racism, there is little interest in situating his misogyny and white supremacy within a neoliberal fascist politics that is aligned with neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other militant groups who argue for racial cleansing and increasingly commit violent acts against people of color who oppose their views. Trump’s politics are endlessly whitewashed in the mainstream media, which too often views his policy decisions more as the infantilized outbursts of an impetuous tweeting teenage bully rather than as a shock and threat to the laws and values that constitute a democracy currently in peril. The mainstream press argues that Trump’s rhetoric is divisive, humiliating and hateful, but rarely is it associated with the rhetoric of fascist politics or for that matter with the power of moneyed interests of the financial elite.
This evasion is all the more frightening since Trump, not to mention most of his critics, seem unaware of the accumulated terror unleashed by past fascists. Trump appears reckless when implementing policies that echo faintly the genocidal practices used by Nazis in their concentration camps, such as separating children from their undocumented parents and putting both in caged prisons. While Trump has not gassed tens of thousands of children as Hitler did, putting children in cages suggests crossing a moral and political line that opens the door to even more extreme forms of barbarism. -At the same time, his anti-democratic proclivities are on display almost every day. For instance, Trump’s open infatuation with demagogues such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un is matched only by his consistent vilification of America’s democratic allies. One clear cut example is his ludicrous claim that trade wars with Canada are justified because Canada represents a threat to America’s national security. The latter is uttered at the same time that Trump calls Kim Jong-un terrific.
Trump has not only normalized racism in the United States and given new legitimacy to the hate filled rants and ideologies of neo-Nazis and white nationalists, he has deepened the crisis of democracy by elevating emotion over reason and turning civic illiteracy into a virtue. Ignorance turns deadly when embraced by the powerful and removed from any notion of the material consequences it has for those who have to suffer from a practices of abandonment, terminal exclusion, and state violence.
State-sanctioned ignorance is more than fodder for late night comedy shows, it also provides the psychological conditions for certain individuals and groups to associate “pollution” and disposability with what Richard A. Etlin calls “a biologically racialist worldview, which divides the human race according to the dichotomy of the pure and impure, the life-enhancing and the life-polluting.” This is a language mobilized by the energies of the ethically dead, and echoes strongly with the anti-Semitism that was at the center of the genocidal policies of the Third Reich. This poisonous anti-Semitic discourse has returned with a vengeance in Hungary, Poland and a number of other countries now moving towards fascism. It is also surfacing among alt-right and other neo-Nazi groups in the United States. Unsurprisingly, there are also coded hints of it in Trump’s language. Trump is more careful with his displays of anti-Semitism, especially given the uproar that followed his comments stating that there were decent people marching with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.
One of the most revealingly ideological comments made by Trump during the Kavanaugh affair was contained in a tweet aimed at the women who had confronted Sen. Jeff Flake and other Republican senators over their support for Kavanaugh. Trump stated that “the very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it. Also, look at all the professional made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love.”
Trump exposed more than the level of political corruption and hatred of women that now defines American politics, he also appropriated an anti-Semitic discourse to discredit both the women to whom he is referring and dissent in general. Many conservative pundits and commentators have also followed Trump’s lead and claimed that protesters were paid by George Soros. This display of anti-Semitism directed at Soros is not new for Trump. As Greg Sargent pointed out in the Washington Post, this vile piece of anti-Semitism directed at Soros played a “starring role in Trump’s 2016 closing ad, which was the perfect expression of this type of exclusionary populist demagoguery.” Not only do Trump’s comments and the earlier ad mirror anti-Semitic propaganda from the 1930s, it also legitimates the vicious attacks on Soros in a number of Eastern European countries, including Poland, Romania and Serbia. But it is President Viktor Orbán of Hungary who is leading the pack in his attack on Soros as part of a larger attack on Jews.
Trump’s coded endorsement of Orbán’s attack on Jews, whom he appears to blame for all of Hungary’s problems, is particularly repellent given its viciousness and the horrors of the past it echoes. For instance, recalling the genocidal rhetoric aimed at Jews in the past by the Nazis, Orban commemorated the 170th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 by stating the following (without mentioning Jews directly):
They do not fight directly, but by stealth; they are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel the whole world is theirs. They are not generous but vengeful and always attack the heart — especially if it is red, white and green [the colors of the Hungarian flag].
Prior to the recent election in Hungary, Orbán plastered images of George Soros throughout the country. Soros is both a Hungarian citizen and a Jew, and was a perfect symbol for Orbán to vilify in his efforts to take over the country. Soros is dangerous to Orbán because of his promotion of the open society, open borders, cosmopolitanism, human rights and democracy. That he is Jewish made it easier for Orbán to attack him personally without having to openly express his hatred of democracy.
That Trump would use a reference taken out of the poisonous playbook of this fascist leader is both revealing and dangerous. Not only because such rhetoric indexes a fascist politics and the potential dangers that follow, but also because of the silence that surrounded Trump’s reference to Soros, with all of its toxic implications. Even if Trump is not consciously anti-Semitic, he should know better since, as journalist Ron Kampeas points out, his comments traffic “in conspiracies of control and destruction identified with classical anti-Semitism.” Trump’s consistently coded support for an ideology embraced by neo-Nazis and other white nationalists is not new. It is the discourse of blood and soil that propelled an emotionally charged language of hate, reification, dehumanization and eventually mass murder. Forgetting this history is less an act of historical ignorance than a complicitous practice of reviving the conditions that give birth to the horrors of the past.
Trump’s defenders might argue that Trump is not an anti-Semite because two of his former lawyers were Jewish — Roy Cohn and Michael Cohen. Moreover, his daughter converted to Judaism. This may be true, and Trump may just be so stupid to know and not to care when he is producing an anti-Semitic stereotype, and so ignorant of history that he can’t put together the threat of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the history of genocide that it produced. But if we are to believe writers such as Michael Wolff and Bob Woodward who have chronicled the post-2016 chaos in the White House that Trump has overt white supremacists such as Stephen Miller making decisions for him, the Kavanaugh hearings may signal a danger that far exceeds the misogyny and Vichy-type silence revealed by the spineless Republican Party and the Trump administration.
Mitch McConnell and the other gravediggers of democracy in the Congress could care less about Trump’s crude language, governing style, character or potential revelations of criminal acts. They have no qualms or reservations about supporting a fascist politics as long as they get what they want from their alliance with the racists, xenophobic ultra-nationalists and white nationalists. According to historian Christopher R. Browning, the Republican Party, in particular has received a big payoff in selling its soul to Trump’s worldview:
[H]uge tax cuts for the wealthy, financial and environmental deregulation, the nominations of two conservative Supreme Court justices (so far) and a host of other conservative judicial appointments, and a significant reduction in government-sponsored health care (though not yet the total abolition of Obamacare they hope for). Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump.
The Kavanaugh appointment exposes more than what commentators such as Robert Reich and historians such as Timothy Snyder view as alarming and frightening parallels between the United States and Hitler’s regime, or what the Yale historian Jason Stanley calls an accelerating fascist politics. Their analyses seem overly cautious. There is little doubt that Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court is an abomination not only because of his alleged sexual assaults, but his equally revealing and right-wing ideological rant against the left, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party during his Senate hearing. More ominous, when comprehended within the context of an emerging fascist politics, is the recognition that his appointment is part of a broader effort on the part of the Trump administration to radically modify the rule of law and individual rights, further depriving them of any meaning and cutting them off from any viable humanitarian standards.
We are in the midst of an American version of fascism, which is not to suggest a fascism modeled exclusively after Nazi Germany. Fascist rhetoric has become normalized in the United States, white terror is no longer coded, and ultra-nationalism has merged into a love affair between the U.S. and a host of ruthless dictators. Of course the U.S. has a long tradition of civil liberties but it also has a long tradition of lawlessness, and the latter is now winning out. It thrives under the guise of a neoliberalism that has fueled for the past 40 years vast inequalities in wealth and power, producing a level of political and economic corruption that signals not just a hatred of democracy, but a unique style of American fascism.
The Kavanaugh hearings should serve to remind us that we live in increasingly dangerous times. It is important to remember that fascism begins not with violence, police assaults or mass killings, but with language. Not only have we learned this from the rise of fascism in the 1930s in Europe but also in the current historical moment -- a moment in which lawlessness, misogyny, white nationalism and racism are resurgent all over the globe. If fascism begins with language so does a strong resistance willing to challenge it.
This is all the more reason for individuals, institutions, labor unions, educators, young people and others not to be silent in the face of the current fascist turn in the United States and elsewhere. In the face of the hatred, racism, misogyny and deceit that have become part of a state-sanctioned public dialogue, no one can afford to look away, fail to speak out, and risk silence. This is especially true at a time when history is used to hide rather than illuminate the past, when it becomes difficult to translate private issues into larger systemic considerations and people willingly allow themselves to be both seduced and trapped into spectacles of violence, cruelty and authoritarian impulses. Under such circumstances, the terror of the unforeseen becomes all the more ominous.
Any viable notion of change will have to reject the notion that capitalism and democracy are synonymous and that participatory democracy begins and ends with elections. Doing so is crucial to undoing the myth that political power is separate from economic power -- a myth that upholds the false assumption that whatever problems currently exist under the Trump administration are endemic to Trump’s alleged mental health, ignorance and other character flaws. In actuality, the fascist politics now shaping the United States have been in the making for decades and are systemic to neoliberal capitalism and deeply entwined with iniquitous relations of power. Rob Urie illuminates the issue, particularly in relation to class divisions. He writes:
The class relations of American political economy are antithetical to the notion of a unified public interest. The point isn’t to suggest that this or that authoritarian leader isn’t authoritarian, but rather to sketch in the political backdrop to argue that the lived experience of social, economic and political repression is lived experience, not academic theories or bourgeois fantasies. The circumstances of investment bankers stripping assets, industrialists relocating factories built by workers to low-wage locations and tech ‘pioneers’ using licenses and patents to extract economic rents is systemically ‘authoritarian’ in the sense that democratic consent to do so was neither sought nor given.
It is time for a broad-based social movement to reject finance capitalism, embrace education as central to a politics willing to fight to persuade people to reclaim their sense of agency and push at the frontiers of the ethical imagination, connect what they learn to addressing social issues, taking risks and challenging the destructive narratives that are seeping into the public realm and becoming normalized. Any dissatisfaction with injustice necessitates combining the demands of moral witnessing with the pedagogical power of persuasion and the call to address the tasks of emancipation. We need individuals and social movements willing to disturb the normalization of a fascist politics, and to oppose racist, sexist and neoliberal orthodoxy. As Robin D.G. Kelley observes, we cannot confuse catharsis and momentary outrage for revolution. In a time of increasing tyranny, resistance appears to have lost its usefulness as a call to action.
For instance, the novelist Teju Cole has argued that “‘resistance’ is back in vogue, and it describes something rather different now. The holy word has become unexceptional. Faced with a vulgar, manic and cruel regime, birds of many different feathers are eager to proclaim themselves members of the Resistance. It is the most popular game in town.” Cole's critique appears to be borne out by the fact that the most unscrupulous of liberal and conservative politicians, such as Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton and even James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, are now claiming that they have joined the resistance against Trump fascist politics.
Even Michael Hayden, the former NSA chief and CIA director under George W. Bush, has joined the ranks of Albright and Clinton in condemning Trump as a proto-fascist. Writing in the New York Times, Hayden chastised Trump as a serial liar and in doing so quoted the renowned historian Timothy Snyder, who stated in reference to the Trump regime that “Post-Truth is pre-fascism.” The irony here is hard to miss. Not only did Hayden head Bush’s illegal National Security Agency warrantless wiretapping program while head of the NSA, he also lied repeatedly about his role in Bush’s sanction and implementation of state torture in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This tsunami of banal resistance was on full display when an anonymous member of the Trump’s inner circle published an op-ed in the New York Times claiming that he or she and other senior officials were part of “the resistance within the Trump administration.” The author was quick to qualify the statement by insisting such resistance had nothing to do with “the popular ‘resistance’ of the left.” To prove the point, it was noted by the author that the members of this insider resistance liked some of Trump’s policies such as “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.” Combining resistance with the endorsements of such reactionary policies reads like fodder for late-night comics.
The Democratic Party now defines itself as the most powerful political force opposing Trump’s fascist politics. What it has forgotten is the role it has played under the Clinton and Obama presidencies in creating the economic, political and social conditions for Trump’s election in 2016. Such historical and political amnesia allows them to make the specious claim that they are now the party of resistance. Resistance in these instances has little to do with civic courage, a defense of human dignity, and the willingness to not just bear witness to the current injustices but to struggle to overcome them. Of course, the issue is not to disavow resistance as much as to redefine it as inseparable from fundamental change that calls for the overthrow of capitalism itself.
While the call to resist neoliberal fascism is to be welcomed, it has to be interrogated and not aligned with individuals and ideological forces that helped put in place the racist, economic, religious and educational forces that helped produce it. What all of these calls to resistance have in common is a opposition to Trump rather than to the conditions that created him. Trump’s election and the Kavanaugh affair make clear that what is needed is not only a resistance to the established order of neoliberal capitalism but a radical restructuring of society itself. That is not about resisting oppression in its diverse forms but overcoming it — in short, changing it.
While it is crucial to condemn the Kavanaugh hearings for their blatant disregard for the Constitution, expressed hatred of women, and symbolic expression and embrace of white privilege and power, it is necessary to enlarge our criticism to include the system that made the Kavanaugh appointment possible. Kavanaugh represents not only the deep-seated rot of misogyny but also, as Grace Lee Boggs has stated, “a government of, by, and for corporate power.” We need to see beyond the white nationalists and neo-Nazis demonstrating in the streets in order to recognize the terror of the unforeseen, the terror that is state sanctioned, and hides in the shadows of power.
Such a struggle means more than engaging material relations of power or the economic architecture of neoliberal fascism, it also means taking on the challenge of producing the tools and tactics necessary to rethink and create the conditions for a new kind of subjectivity as the basis for a new kind of democratic socialist politics. We need a comprehensive politics that brings together various single-interest movements so that the threads that connect them become equally as important as the particular forms of oppression that define their singularity. In addition, we need intellectuals willing to combine intellectual complexity with clarity and accessibility, embrace the high-stakes investment in persuasion, and cross disciplinary borders in order to theorize and speak with what Rob Nixon calls the “cunning of lightness” and a “methodological promiscuity” that keeps language attuned to the pressing claims for justice.
Trump has surfaced the dire anti-democratic threats that have been expanding under an economic system stripped of any political, social and ethical responsibility. This is a form of neoliberal fascism that has redrawn and expanded the parameters of what after the genocidal practices and hate-filled politics of the 1930s and 40s in Europe was once thought impossible to happen again. The threat has returned and is now on our doorsteps, and it needs to be named, exposed, and overcome by those who believe that the stakes are much too high to look away and not engage in organized political and pedagogical struggles.
Hannah Arendt once wrote that terror was the essence of totalitarianism. She was right and we are now witnessing the dystopian visions of the new authoritarians who now trade in fear, hatred, demonization, violence and racism. This will be Trump’s legacy. It is easy to despair in times of tyranny, but it is much more productive to be politically and morally outraged and to draw upon such anger as a source of hope and action. Without hope even in the most dire of times, there is no possibility for resistance, dissent and struggle.
A critical consciousness is the prerequisite for informed agency and hope is the basis for individual and collective resistance. Moreover, when combined with collective action, hope translates into a dynamic sense of possibility, enabling one to join with others for the long haul of fighting systemic forms of domination. Courage in the face of tyranny is a necessity and not an option and we can learn both from the past and the present about resistance movements and the power of civic courage and collective struggle and how such modes of resistance are emerging among a number of groups across a wide variety of landscapes.
What is crucial is the necessity of not facing such struggles alone, allowing ourselves to feel defeated in our isolation or giving in to the crippling neoliberal survival-of-the-fittest ethos that dominates everyday relations. Radical politics begins when one refuses to face one’s fate alone, learns about the workings and mechanisms of power, and rejects the dominant mantra of social isolation.
There is strength in numbers. One of the most important things we can do to sustain a sense of courage and dignity is to imagine a new social order. That is, we must constantly work to revive a radical political imaginary by talking with others in order to rethink what a new politics and society would look like, one that is fundamentally anti-capitalist and dedicated to creating the conditions for new democratic political and social formations. This suggests creating new public spheres that make such a dialogue and notion of solidarity possible while simultaneously struggling against the forces that gave rise to Trump, particularly those that suggest that totalitarian forms are still with us.
As I have stressed, rethinking politics anew also suggests the possibility of building broad-based alliances in order to create a robust economic and political agenda that connects democracy with a serious effort to interrogate the sources and structures of inequality, racism and authoritarianism that now plague the United States. This points to opening up new lines of understanding, dialogue and radical empathy. It means, as the philosopher George Yancy suggests, learning “how to love with courage.”
A nonviolent movement for democratic socialism does not need vanguards, political purity or the seductions of ideological orthodoxy. On the contrary, it needs an informed and energized politics without guarantees, one that is open to new ideas, self-reflection and understanding. Instead of ideologies of certainty, unchecked moralism and a politics of shaming, we need to understand the conditions that make it possible for people to internalize forms of domination, and that means interrogating forgotten histories and existing pedagogies of oppression. Recent polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans say this is the lowest point in American politics that they can recall. Such despair offers the possibility of a pedagogical intervention, one that provides a political opening to create a massive movement for organized struggle in the United States.
Rebecca Solnit has rightly argued that while we live in an age of despair, hope is a gift we that we cannot surrender because it amplifies the power of alternative visions, offers up stories in which we can imagine the unimaginable, enables people to “move from depression to outrage,” and positions people to take seriously what they are for and what they are against. This suggests trying to understand how the very processes of learning constitute the political mechanisms through which identities — individual and collective — are shaped, desired, mobilized and take on the worldly practices of autonomy, self-reflection and self-determination as part of a larger struggle for economic and social justice.
First, it is crucial to develop a language in which it becomes possible to imagine a future much different from the present, one that refuses to privatize hope with a crude individualism. Second, it is crucial to develop a discourse of critique and possibility that rejects the ongoing normalizing of existing relations of domination and control while simultaneously repudiating the notion that capitalism and democracy are synonymous. It would be wise to heed the words of the late science-fiction visionary Ursula K. Le Guin when she wrote, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Nay, human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
Third, it is imperative to reject the notion that all problems are individual issues and can only be solved as a matter of individual action and responsibility. This is one of neoliberalism’s most powerful ideological tenets, working to make the personal the only politics that matters while detaching private troubles from the wider world. All three of these assumptions serve to depoliticize people and erase both what it means to make power visible and to organize collectively to address such problem. Fourth, there is a need, I believe, for a discourse that is both historical, relational and comprehensive. Memory matters both in terms of reclaiming lost narratives of struggle and for assessing visions, strategies and tactics that still hold enormous possibilities in the present.
Developing a relational discourse means connecting the dots around issues that are often viewed in isolated terms. For instance, one cannot study the attack on public schools and higher education as sutured internal issues that focus exclusively on the teaching methods and strategies. What is needed are analyses that link such attacks to the broader issue of inequality, the dynamics of casino capitalism and the pervasive racism active in promoting new forms of segregation both within and outside of schools.
A comprehensive politics is one that does at least two things. On the one hand, it tries to understand a plethora of problems from massive poverty to the despoiling of the planet within a broader understanding of politics. That is, it connects the dots among diverse forms of oppression. In this instance, the focus is on the totality of politics, one that focuses on the power relations of global capitalism, the rise of illiberal democracy, the archives of authoritarianism and the rise of financial capital. A totalizing view of oppression allows the development of a language that is capable of making visible the ideological and structural forces of the new forms of domination at work in the United States and across the globe. On the other hand, such a comprehensive understanding of politics makes it possible to bring together a range of crucial issues and movements so as to expand the range of oppressions while at the same time providing a common ground for these diverse groups to be able to work together in the interest of the common good and a broad struggle for democratic socialism.
Finally, any viable language of emancipation needs to develop a discourse of what Ron Aronson calls social hope. He writes:
Social hope, the disposition to act collectively to change a situation, entails that we act not blindly but with a sense of possibility. The cold stream demands that we prepare ourselves and assess the conditions under which we are operating. The hope of social movements calls for objective, clearheaded organization and action, and an appreciation of the circumstances in which we may be successful. This realistic stream of hope mingles with the visionary stream that motivates us; without both, there is no hope. Hope uniquely combines our longing, our own real intention, and our sense of potency with real possibility, the subjective and the objective.
Aronson is right in arguing that naming what is wrong in a society is important but it is not enough, because such criticism can sometimes be overpowering and lead to a paralyzing despair or, even worse, a crippling cynicism. Hope speaks to imagining a life beyond capitalism, and combines a realistic sense of limits with a lofty vision of demanding the impossible. As Ariel Dorfman has argued, progressives need a language that is missing from our political vocabulary, one that insists that “alternative worlds are possible, that they are within reach if we’re courageous enough, and smart enough, and daring enough to take control of our own lives.” Reason, justice, and change cannot blossom without hope because educated hope taps into our deepest experiences and longing for a life of dignity with others, a life in which it becomes possible to imagine a future that does not mimic the present.
I am not referring to a romanticized and empty notion of hope, but to a notion of informed social hope that faces the concrete obstacles and realities of domination but continues the ongoing task of realizing a future in which matters of justice, equality, freedom and joy matter. Casino capitalism is a toxin that has created a predatory class of unethical zombies who are producing dead zones of the imagination and massive ecologies of immiseration that even George Orwell could not have envisioned, while waging a fierce fight against the possibilities of a democratic future.
The time has come to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination, a renewed sense of social agency and an impassioned international social movement with a vision, organization and set of strategies to challenge the neoliberal nightmare engulfing the planet. Such a strategy would have to revive the radical imagination and the task of thinking about a future without capitalism and oppression; launch a comprehensive education program to provide alternative narratives, memories and histories that enable the capacities for informed judgment, ethical responsibilities and civic courage; and last but not least create those alternative public spheres where a new conversation can be opened up about the creation of a new progressive and socialist political formation. As Karl Marx said, there is nothing to lose but our chains.