How a Crisis of Hope Has Shifted From 'The Grapes of Wrath' to Progressivism

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book We: Reviving Social Hope by Ronald Aronson (University of Chicago Press, April 2017): 


Today the hope that matters most has fallen on hard times. Even after the catastrophes of the twentieth century the great modern hope had persisted “that things will one day finally get better,” in Theodor Adorno’s words—“that one day human beings will be allowed to breathe easily.” But today we are losing the hope of a better society and a better world, and even the collective consciousness that can pose such goals. Who still anticipates the continued spread of political and social equality and democracy? Who still banks on the collective force of workers and other ordinary people? Who still thinks that our children’s and grandchildren’s lives can be made better than our own? Who still expects that the development of science and technology and the spread of education will make the world more humane and livable? And who still sees themselves as belonging to a collectivity capable of making any of these things happen?          

The belief in Progress was one version of the modern faith. Remarkably, it withstood the catastrophes of the first part of the twentieth century to reach its peak during the thirty glorious years of 1945–75. Only then did it begin to be rejected as an obsolete “grand narrative,” and by now, intellectually speaking at least, we live “after Progress.” Indeed, a “loathing of modernity” has become so widespread among intellectuals today that even proof of a massive historical reduction of violence cannot succeed in counteracting it.

To live after Progress is to share a civilizational mood of disillusionment and discouragement, in part because one of the main engines of Progress has turned out to have such negative consequences. Contemporary capitalism brings everything we do, touch, and are, increasingly under the imperative for profit, causing incessant change with little regard for human and environmental consequences. All corners of existence are subjected increasingly to a kind of free-market totalitarianism, a maelstrom of “growth” and “development” that sweeps everything in its path.

All our education and free elections, our medical science and economic productivity, our instant communications and psychological self-knowledge, do not make our world more hospitable, democratic, fair, or just. Nor do they give us heart that the forces shaping our lives are being brought under our collective control. The opposite is happening: as the impersonal force of “the market” rules more and more areas of life, as people see themselves increasingly as separated, isolated individuals, the damage to the environment becomes impossible to ignore. Both in the United States and Europe, existing political arrangements seem increasingly impotent to deal with the problems issuing from the “economization” of all areas of life.

Our world of shrunken hope generates an abundance of lesser hopes. We recycle our garbage. We donate to environmental causes. We may even demonstrate against the endless war. We work to save the whales and the wolves, we donate to Planned Parenthood, and we sign petitions, but we know that these never add up to something larger.

People live fervently by narrowed and individual hopes, sharing them among family and friends, finding them reflected in churches and in the media. We work out and eat carefully. We closely follow the latest advice about prostate and breast screening. We say “I love you” to each other and our children a dozen times a day. We dream of moving to someplace where living conditions are better. We read books and search websites that promise help in finding our bearings amidst the maelstrom.

But what has become of the great political and historical goal of making our collective life better, of doing away with oppression, of creating conditions in which all humans can finally breathe easily? What has become of the common good? And what has happened to those who once dreamed of, and acted upon, that different kind of progress—yes, the growth of individual empowerment as today, but intertwined with democratic control, social equality, and what Herbert Marcuse called “the pacification of existence”?

This has been the project of the left, those tens and hundreds of millions who, beginning with the revolutions that inaugurated the modern world, sympathized with, actively created, joined, and participated in the vast variety of social movements trying to bring about what is now disingenuously called “progressive” change. I am speaking of those who in large ways and small have created the various modern visions of social justice. They have fought for a living wage, equality, and democracy—through thinking, talking, and writing, and through marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, strikes, and revolutions. The left: philosophes, republicans, sans-culottes, Chartists, anarchists, socialists, communists, trade unionists, abolitionists, suffragists, Freedom Riders, civil rights activists, anticolonial and liberation movements, antiwar and antinuclear activists, feminists, native and Hispanic movements, and gay and lesbian activists—the climate of change they created, their sympathizers, their ideas and arguments, their victories and defeats, their organizations, and their sheer energy and courage have been decisive in shaping the world as we know it....

Looking back on the recent history of the left’s hopes is a bit like reading the story of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Loss follows upon loss, defeat builds upon defeat. Just when things cannot seem to get any worse, they do. The family is forced to shift ground and regroup continually, but they adapt each time as the space available for survival diminishes with each new blow from police, vigilantes, growers, and nature. Almost everything is lost, but the survivors keep on.

What makes Steinbeck’s book hopeful at the end is Ma’s determination to keep the family together, Tom’s decision to follow Casey’s direction and join the wider struggle, and the instinctive solidarity Rose of Sharon shows when she nurses the starving man. Steinbeck wanted his readers to see an entire people transforming its sense of individual and personal suffering into a shared militancy: those caught up in such social evils would one day cohere into an unstoppable transformative force. But the day never came. And, like Steinbeck himself, those who most wholeheartedly embraced this vision and the Enlightenment’s hopes have become disillusioned. In contrast, more than one hundred years ago a Yiddish political-literary journal was founded by Jewish socialists, one which continues to be published, having long outlived its expectant world. It is called Di Tsukunft: The Future. Who can imagine launching a political-literary journal with such a name today, in any language?

.... But a sense of “the Movement,” a comprehensive left vision, is more than nostalgia, because its possibility is deeply rooted in two realities. One of these is our common human identity, the other our common global situation. First, with all its complexities and contradictions, and however differentially, we all belong to an evolving world climate of social morality. In and through all particularities and contestations, humans today share a general sensibility—violated here, institutionalized there, appealed to elsewhere—built up over the course of human history. There is indeed a history of freedom, and in this sense certain specific movements—for example, towards gay marriage—are inconceivable without others, such as the New Left. Second, our common situation is decisively shaped by global capitalism. The savage inequalities it has imposed over the past generation have been provoking new mass movements in several countries. Controlling its other immediate and destructive consequence, climate change, is provoking a collective struggle to protect our common home, one based on a universal vision and a common hope. Jean-Francois Lyotard once wrote that “the very notion of reaching unanimity has been abandoned.” But after the Great Recession and in the face of climate change, his postmodern reconsideration demands to be reconsidered.

.... From an activist perspective, a time-honored reflex would seem to demand assessing the terrain of battle and the balance of forces; how to restore the flagging sense of a community, the waning sense of collective participation in creating a collective future? How to overcome the usurpation of Homo politicus by Homo oeconomicus? How to move towards more equal, more democratic social policies and an environmentally sustainable economy? Or, if we admit that there is a crisis of social vision and action, what then seems demanded is a focused and concrete rethinking of goals, both broad and specific. This might include, for example, asking who will be the subject of the future movement, how to attack the ascendant social logic, how much reform can be achieved within existing economic, social, and political structures, where the structures themselves need rethinking, and what sorts of transformations are necessary and possible today. What are the prospects for initiating significant social change and ecological protection within existing political channels; and beyond these, are alternative strategies possible?

These are important questions, demanding study and experiment in a number of different directions. But too quickly depicting the crisis of hope as a call to arms risks avoiding confronting what can only be called our civilizational malady. To try to revive movements when we are no longer animated by their guiding assumptions is to arrest the usual suspects. To comprehend our situation, it is necessary to understand what exactly is the hope that is being eroded. What kind of entity is social hope, and what does it mean to say that we have been losing it?

The hope I am concerned with is not merely an attitude, or a mood, or a feeling—all of which emphasize its subjective side. It is, rather, a unique combination of the subjective and the objective. Rooted in human needs and longings, it attempts to change the world. In hoping, we are pointing to an objective future that we wish to see happen, and anticipating that a certain state of affairs may come about. We act in the possibility that events may be smiling on us—that is, in circumstances in which our goals may actually be realized. Hope is neither a wholly subjective dimension of life nor a movement of events governed by iron laws. It is potency and possibility. 

Reprinted with permission from We: Reviving Social Hope by Ronald Aronson, published by the University of Chicago Press.

© 2017 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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