DURING the First World War – that Great War – generals on the attacking side were generally optimistic of a successful onslaught – after all, they had planned it. Generals on the opposing side were equally optimistic, but they were confident about their army’s chances of defending against the onslaught and then launching their own counter-attack. This level of optimism on both sides certainly contributed to the bloodiest stalemate the world has ever seen. Meanwhile, the ordinary soldiers of both the attacking army and the defending army consisted of tens of thousands of poor young men who would do all this bloody fighting. I’m not so certain that, by 1917 at least, those ordinary men in the trenches awaiting the barrages, bullets and bayonets were as optimistic about the approaching battles as the generals were. If they were optimistic, it was probably as likely to be about something other than “a successful onslaught”. Perhaps they were optimistic about a quick end to it all, in whatever form that might be. Anyway by 1917, the soldiers of the Russian Army seem to have suffered a bad case of pessimism about the whole thing, because they mutinied and revolted, motivated by the rather negative idea of improving their conditions. Alas, the rest is history.
Letting Ignorance In
If religion is the opium of the people, fortune tellers and hypnotists might be the peoples’ placebo.
In a conversation I had with my sister recently, I mocked the act of fortune telling and hypnosis, to her chagrin. I mocked people’s superstitious faith in such performances. Had I known beforehand the earnestness of her regard for such performers and alchemists, I might have been more considerate, or more quiet. I will not recall the conversation here, suffice to write that it ended abruptly when my sister (rather bitterly) called me a “negative” and “pessimistic” person.
Her remarks hurt. Naturally, I consciously strive to be an upbeat and positive person, and I think that I succeed in this much of the time, despite the obstacles. Therefore, I pondered, if I consider myself to be generally optimistic, and others do too, what was it about my outlook that my sister found so pessimistic? What is optimism?
According to my sister, hypnosis and fortune-telling will only work on optimistic, positive people, and it would not work on me because of my “negativity”. One has to “want to be hypnotized”, one has to “let it in”, and clearly my skepticism prevents me from “letting it in”. I must allow myself to be fooled. ‘IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’.
Similarly, regarding politics and economics, we are often distracted and manipulated by the establishment’s vision of optimism. Their optimism, I believe, is pessimism with a smile. Their optimism, like all their ideas, is insidious; by allowing it to shape our own optimism we deny ourselves the possibility of a better kind of society and limit ourselves to their restrictive ideas of what our world should be like.
Optimism is Subjective; One Man’s Charity is Another Woman’s…
Optimism is surely subjective. One – let’s call him John – may see a food bank, a soup kitchen or yet another charity being set-up, and find such moments to be worthy of congratulation and celebration. Celebrating these charitable measures, John recognises that good is being done and a noble effort is being made by those running such organisations. In John’s opinion, something is being done to combat the deficiencies of our society.
Conversely, a second person – let us call her Mary – may interpret the existence of such charitable organisations as being a result of increasing poverty and desperation, and therefore, they should not be cause for jubilation. Mary will argue that instead of reflecting the good in society, charities merely reflect the terrible failures of our system; the more charities that are created, evidently the worse-off our society is. Furthermore, Mary understands that charities offer only immediate and minimum relief to those who need it, they are not a solution to misery or a prevention of it. Mary sees that political leaders, instead of finding the long-term solution to poverty, are merely resolved to allow charities to alleviate short-term suffering – shirking their responsibility to develop effective solutions.
Now, of course, I do not wish to be misunderstood. Charities are required to offer immediate aid for those who need it, and that is vital to those in desperate situations right now. However, instead of relying on emergency aid, Mary promotes and strives towards an alternative way of organising society where such organisations are not needed because there will be virtually no poverty. That is her optimistic vision. Mary will be described as “anti”, “negative” or “pessimistic” by John and his supporters because of her criticism of his appearances at the opening of food banks and the congratulatory newspaper articles that report it.
The “problem” with Mary is that she has questioned things. She has questioned why charities exist, and questioning things is often seen as negative by the establishment, because it represents an obstacle to how they would otherwise wish to proceed. Hence, questioning or critical thinking is portrayed as pessimistic by the ruling class and those influenced by them.
Robert Tressell put it best when he wrote about ‘The OBS’:
‘One of the most important agencies for the relief of distress was the Organized Benevolence Society. This association received money from many sources. The proceeds of the fancy-dress carnival; the collections from different churches and chapels which held special services in aid of the unemployed; the weekly collections made by the employees of several local firms and business houses; the proceeds of concerts, bazaars, and entertainments, donations from charitable persons, and the subscriptions of the members. The society also received large quantities of cast-off clothing and boots, and tickets of admission to hospitals, convalescent homes and dispensaries from subscribers to those institutions, or from people like Rushton & Co., who had collecting-boxes in their workshops and offices…
The largest item in the expenditure of the Society was the salary of the General Secretary, Mr Sawney Grinder–a most deserving case–who was paid one hundred pounds a year.
After the death of the previous secretary there were so many candidates for the vacant post that the election of the new secretary was a rather exciting affair. The excitement was all the more intense because it was restrained. A special meeting of the society was held: the Mayor, Alderman Sweater, presided, and amongst those present were Councillors Rushton, Didlum and Grinder, Mrs Starvem, Rev. Mr Bosher, a number of the rich, semi-imbecile old women who had helped to open the Labour Yard, and several other ‘ladies’. Some of these were the district visitors already alluded to, most of them the wives of wealthy citizens and retired tradesmen, richly dressed, ignorant, insolent, overbearing frumps, who–after filling themselves with good things in their own luxurious homes–went flouncing into the poverty-stricken dwellings of their poor ‘sisters’ and talked to them of ‘religion’, lectured them about sobriety and thrift, and–sometimes–gave them tickets for soup or orders for shillingsworths of groceries or coal. Some of these overfed females–the wives of tradesmen, for instance–belonged to the Organized Benevolence Society, and engaged in this ‘work’ for the purpose of becoming acquainted with people of superior social position–one of the members was a colonel, and Sir Graball D’Encloseland–the Member of Parliament for the borough–also belonged to the Society and occasionally attended its meetings. Others took up district visiting as a hobby; they had nothing to do, and being densely ignorant and of inferior mentality, they had no desire or capacity for any intellectual pursuit. So they took up this work for the pleasure of playing the grand lady and the superior person at a very small expense. Other of these visiting ladies were middle-aged, unmarried women with small private incomes–some of them well-meaning, compassionate, gentle creatures who did this work because they sincerely desired to help others, and they knew of no better way…
Meantime, in spite of this and kindred organizations the conditions of the under-paid poverty stricken and unemployed workers remained the same. Although the people who got the grocery and coal orders, the ‘Nourishment’, and the cast-off clothes and boots, were very glad to have them, yet these things did far more harm than good. They humiliated, degraded and pauperized those who received them, and the existence of the societies prevented the problem being grappled with in a sane and practical manner. The people lacked the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are produced by Work: these people were willing to work, but were prevented from doing so by the idiotic system of society which these ‘charitable’ people are determined to do their best to perpetuate.
The Job Centre
When I was unemployed I had to attend a job-seeking workshop. Now, the people hosting the workshop were polite and well-meaning people. They seemed to be from working-class backgrounds themselves, but the workshop was funded by a local and well-known entrepreneur, and the kinds of ideas which he is likely to espouse were also the ones propagated by the staff at the week-long workshop. This was perhaps done unconsciously by our hosts, but I would speculate that they were trained in what to say to job seekers and genuinely believed that it was good advice. Invariably, the advice given to fellow unemployed attendees was approximately this: “So you’re unemployed, but all is not lost! Perhaps you’re not being optimistic or pro-active enough. You have plenty of skill and talent – you just need to uncover it! You must take responsibility and get organized”.
Admittedly, this is generally good advice, if a little patronizing, but I had two concerns with how it was imparted. Firstly, it placed all of the responsibility on the job-seeker, who, it was suggested, should be going so far as to buy expensive Italian leather shoes as a gimmick to put their CVs into (as I was told one very clever person had done before). The fact that most unemployed people cannot afford Italian leather shoes to wear, never mind using them as kind of envelope, did not seem to be considered by the person lecturing us.
Secondly, questioning why unemployment exists, or questioning if employers share any fault for unemployment wasn’t discussed at all, because if it was, it would be seen as “negative thinking” by many there. This would probably be seen as argumentative, and therefore “negative” discussion. I happen to think it could have inspired healthy debate and ideas – a positive and democratic thing in my opinion. Unemployment is an inherently political issue, yet there was no political discussion at all at this workshop. When debate and discussion inspires ideas, we should not be surprised that it is avoided at such events. Having such discussion would undoubtedly have raised issues among the unemployed attendees which the entrepreneurial benefactors and conservative politicians would have found to be against their interests. What resulted in these workshops was an oppressive and patronizing atmosphere of staying positive – positive in the defined sense – with strictly no deviation, not too dissimilar to Pauline’s Job Centre from the League of Gentlemen (above).
Optimism and Climate Change:
Recently, I could not escape the news reports about the “optimistic” and “historic” outcome of the Conference On Climate Change in Paris which has been hailed in the media. But how optimistic was it really?:
‘Instead of a target of a world where all energy must be renewable, big business and their lobby groups have managed to establish vague goals in the agreement that aims for “net-zero” emissions some time in the century’s second half… [sic]
‘…The politicians have managed to sell a positive spin on the agreement mainly because all governments have now been forced to at least pay lip service to the issue of global warming. The most crude climate deniers are now more or less limited to the Republicans in the US Congress. However, the oil and gas industry as well as the world’s governments, are trying to hide behind a green disguise…’
‘…Unfortunately, such claims in fact represent a huge “green washing” of reality. As the 74-year-old doyen of climate science, James Hansen, says, ”It’s really a fraud, a fudge without action, just promises”.’
‘…“We managed to tighten the agreement regarding the temperature target, and then it was not possible to also tighten emission targets”, says the Swedish minister Åsa Romson in a telling comment, as if it were possible to achieve a tighter temperature target without a dramatic tightening of emission reductions towards the eliminating carbon emissions completely.’
But then, immediately tightening emissions targets by the required amount would hamper profits. This is the extent of establishment optimism – optimism influenced only by the availability for massive profiting. Any serious solution is avoided because it would require a revolutionary change to our economic system – something the 1% leading our society are obviously not prepared to do. Naomi Klein has written much about this in her recent book This Changes Everything.
Optimism in Irish Politics
In Ireland, in recent years, we have seen examples of how “optimism” is used by establishment politicians towards a certain end.
For example, in 2007, after receiving warnings from high-profile economists of a pending economic crash, Bertie Ahern’s infamous remark aimed at critics of his Government’s economic policy was:
‘Sitting on the sidelines or on the fence, cribbin’ and moanin’ is a lost opportunity. In fact, I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide’.
The fact that many young adults were committing suicide because of factors linked to social and economic policies of his Fianna Fáil party was lost on him.
More recent political discourse has seen how critics of the status quo, critics of austerity, critics of capitalism and critics of mainstream politics are “dismal and negative“, conversely, the Government parties describe their policies in the most optimistic terms.
‘One of the downsides of some of the Opposition in the Dáil at the moment is they’re a bit dismal and a bit negative and, I suppose, dissonant in the sense that obviously they don’t see very much particularly right with Ireland, but that’s their issue.’ – Joan Burton, Labour.
According to this narrative, it is not that the opposition is being constructively critical or have optimistic ideas of their own, they are merely being unpatriotic, and – it is ambiguously implied – they even have mental illness issues of some sort. Incidentally, it should also be pointed out, that no ideas or plans are being critiqued, it is just an attack on personalities (and, indirectly, on personality disorders).
Last month, optimism was even used by a politician as a justification for his corrupt practices. Cllr. O’ Donnell, (during secret recording in a sting by an undercover RTÉ journalist) remarked at one stage:
I am a business man. I am not a negative person. I like to see things going forward, progress, like … and eh … there’s some members of Donegal County Council who would be the completely opposite.” [sic]
Voltaire on Optimism
This advocation of blind optimism of the status-quo, is the kind of baseless optimism that Voltaire satirizes in his novella, Candide, or Optimism.
Dr. Pangloss, indoctrinates his eager young pupil, Candide, to believe that prevailing establishment ideas are the best ideas and the only plausible ones:
“It is demonstrable… that things cannot be other than they are. It follows that those who say that everything is good are talking foolishly: what they should say is that everything is for the best.”
Dr. Pangloss’ perspective is an inherently conservative one; if things were merely good, then it implies things could improve, but if things are all for the best, then there is no need to question, critique or change anything.
Candide becomes slowly disillusioned with this paradigm when his comfortable life is abruptly disturbed and he experiences some very severe realities. He tries to remain optimistic and make the best choices. We can see how far these “choices” get him in the extract below. Perhaps then, everything is not for the best, perhaps optimism in the status quo is not enough in a world where you are subject to cruelty and injustice and where existential “choices” do not have any significant effect:
‘At the court-martial, Candide was asked whether he preferred to run the gauntlet thirty-six times through the whole regiment, or to have his skull split by a dozen bullets. It was no use his saying that he didn’t want either. He had to choose; so he excercised that divine gift known as ‘Free Will’ by choosing to run the gauntlet thirty-six times… As they were getting ready for the third lap, Candide gave up, and asked them, as a favour, to blow his brains out…’
Ruling Class Optimism
If ruling-class optimism can be described as pessimism with a smile, then utopianism can come dangerously close to being nothing more than wishful thinking. Of course we should never cease striving for utopia – there are always improvements to be had – but how do we achieve this in a pragmatic way? I think that this is what Karl Marx and later Marxists tried to figure out and explain.
One could argue, that in a class-based society such as the one we live in, the ruling-class virtually determines the form of prevailing ideas. The ruling class voice is loud and clear, broadcast across TV stations, radio stations, magazines, newspapers – as it owns or controls all of these – and its ideas are shared again on social media sites. Therefore, the ruling class can more or less define what is to be done – and not only that – the establishment can influence how we should be thinking about what is to be done. This is what Noam Chomsky referred to as Manufacturing Consent. In other words, a ruling class (with its media, employers, politicians, laws, bureaucracy etc.) defines what is optimistic, and what is not. In such instances, one who holds a critical view or who questions the status quo is held as a negative, defeatist, depressing or a “dismal” individual, who is “against everything and for nothing”, because their optimism contradicts the kind that is held to be optimistic by the ruling-class.
There Is An Alternative
My optimism is shaped by the goodness of people and the idea that a society can be formed in which this goodness, instead of greed, is harnessed and maximised. A society which is motivated by the common good instead of profit, and organised democratically instead of by class and wealth. One in which suffering is minimized, where poverty is eradicated as far as it can be, and people support one another; a society which includes democratic processes in all of its functions; a society which looks to utopia, which strives for the ideal, and not one, as we have now, which inflicts suffering on the many for the benefit of the few and declares “we find it regrettable to do so, but it is the only option”. There is another option, I believe it is called socialism.
Oscar Wilde wrote:
‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias’. – The Soul Of Man Under Socialism
To aim towards utopia, is not to be a Utopian. Achieving an alternative society in a pragmatic way, and showing that the emergence of such a society is not only pragmatic but inevitable, is what Karl Marx and other Marxist socialists have attempted to do over only the past 150 years. Indeed, if one thinks about it, the “prediction” that Marx made regarding the death ‘knell of capitalist private property’ is not really very shocking or prophetic. If human society survives any natural disaster and continues centuries or millennia into the future, the most obvious thing in the world is that it will do so under a different economic and social system, and because it is natural for humans to strive towards equality, freedom and progress, it is quite likely that that system will be socialist. But achieving it, that requires optimism.