A thought terrifies me. There is a person standing in front of me, and I’m desperate to make him understand. I’m vulnerable, and I am dependent on his mercy. He doesn’t know me, and his attitude and actions towards me are compelled by a system, by society, by his own preconceptions, or a mixture of the above. I don’t want to cause harm, I just want to live quietly and get along like everybody else. Whether I can or not, is up to him.
It is awful to think that people can become so anonymous to each other. Ordinary individuals, with all of their aspirations, can care so little for other individuals in our everyday environment. Through various forces, otherwise decent, ordinary people have been led to believe that vulnerable people are the problem, and not the powerful few who egg us on.
It can happen to any of us, that we suddenly find ourselves at the mercy of others due to circumstances beyond our control.
Many of us experience relatively minor forms of bureaucracy which frustrate our everyday lives; the clerks at the banks, post office, welfare office, the hospitals, insurance company workers, solicitors, politicians, HR managers, and, perhaps most often, our bosses and colleagues at work.
But what about more extreme forms? Refugees fleeing war, innocent children whose homes are bombed, homeless people searching for shelter to sleep and money for food – what happens when these innocent people come up against the “rules” of an apathetic all-powerful system perpetrated and perpetuated by us on behalf of the powerful and privileged? For the victims, these “rules” take the human form of a customs official, an airforce pilot, a police officer. Pervading bigotry among other ordinary people, encouraged by the media and the economic-political system at large, exacerbates the whole mindless situation and intensifies the horrible downward spiral.
Leo Tolstoy wrote on this subject regarding a character who was faced with the prospect of execution before firing squad:
…obsessed with a single thought, a simple question: who had condemned him to death? Who was it?
It wasn’t the men who had interrogated him at the first session; clearly none of them had wanted to, or had the authority… who was it, then, who was punishing him, killing him, taking his life… with all his memories, yearnings, hopes and ideas? Who was doing this? And [he] felt he knew the answer: no one was.
…It was some kind of system that was killing him… taking his life, taking everything away, destroying him.
‘But who is doing it? [The soldiers of the firing squad are] all suffering like me! Who is it? Who?’
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.
DEPRESSION, I have no doubt, is a mental illness. However, throughout the past few years of recession, and the stories of suicide that that brought, and still brings, I feel that people need to recognise the part society plays in contributing – in quite a significant way – to this mental illness we call depression. I often read in newspapers and on social media, and hear in advertisements by the Health Service Executive (HSE) and radio interviews of the need to talk about depression. Talking about it is very good advice indeed, if one can find someone to talk to, but this merely treats the symptoms and not the cause of the illness. Can talking or being positive give an unemployed person their job back or enough money to make ends meet? Something more fundamental is needed.
People who suffer from depression or suicidal tendencies do not have themselves to blame for the illness they suffer from. As with other illnesses, there are external factors which have brought about the illness in the individual, which are beyond their control. In the case of depression, one does not just suffer from it for some random reason. There are tangible material reasons and social factors which have brought it about. Often this mental illness – depression – is brought about by the actions of others and society in general towards the victim. Suicide, from the perspective of people who feel isolated, or suffer from bullying or depression, or from financial hardship, appears to be a completely logical solution; they are ending their own suffering, and, sometimes, by committing suicide, they may think that they are ending the inconveniencing of others, which the victim may think he is contributing to. This is especially true in instances of financial stress, usually among working class males, who may feel a loss of independence and confidence, and may feel like a burden on their family and friends. Suicide is not a selfish act.
Look at what Robert Tressell wrote about suicide through the character Frank Owen:
‘…tonight Owen was not to read of those things, for as soon as he opened the paper his attention was riveted by the staring headline of one of the principal columns:
“TERRIBLE DOMESTIC TRAGEDY
Wife And Two Children Killed
Suicide of the Murderer”
It was one of the ordinary poverty crimes. The man had been without employment for many weeks and they had been living by pawning or selling their furniture and other possessions. But even this resource must have failed at last, and when one day the neighbours noticed that the blinds remained down and that there was a strange silence about the house, no one coming out or going in, suspicions that something was wrong were quickly aroused. When the police entered the house, they found, in one of the upper rooms, the dead bodies of the woman and the two children, with their throats severed, laid out side by side upon the bed, which was saturated with their blood.
There was no bedstead and no furniture in the room except the straw mattress and the ragged clothes and blankets which formed the bed upon the floor.
The man’s body was found in the kitchen, lying with outstretched arms face downwards on the floor, surrounded by the blood that had poured from the wound in his throat which had evidently been inflicted by the razor that was grasped in his right hand.
No particle of food was found in the house, and on a nail in the wall in the kitchen was hung a piece of blood-smeared paper on which was written in pencil:
‘This is not my crime, but society’s.’
The report went on to explain that the deed must have been perpetrated during a fit of temporary insanity brought on by the sufferings the man had endured.
‘Insanity!’ muttered Owen, as he read this glib theory. ‘Insanity! It seems to me that he would have been insane if he had NOT killed them.’
Surely it was wiser and better and kinder to send them all to sleep, than to let them continue to suffer…’
By the way, Tressell was not justifying familial murder, as readers of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists will know. Neither am I justifying it, and I don’t wish to be seen to here. I am merely trying to point out the pure logic behind suicide which may exist in the minds of people who are suicidal, and that that logic is created by events and circumstances in one’s life outside of their control. Those negative events and circumstances are created by society through how it is organised and operates.
Overcoming depression is not merely an existential excercise, as it is often portrayed (“You must be more positive”… “be optimistic”… talk to people”… “get a hobby”… etc.) but, like everything, it is a social issue. For example, look at the positive influence that kind, thoughtful, educated, passionate people can have on your personality and outlook if you are immersed with such persons for a period. Having such connections can be healthy. But such association cannot be taken for granted. It is not easy to develop if you come from a background of poverty, ignorance, and hardship which can perpetuate negativity and feelings of inferiority. On the contrary, such positive influences are more or less inherited if you come from a privileged background. Anecdotally, I have experienced this. I have had the good fortune to have been inspired and motivated by meeting such inspirational people and reap the confidence that comes from them and the knowledge they impart. Conversely, I have had the misfortune of being surrounded throughout much of my life by people of the opposite kind. Hence, for most of my life, I suffered from a lack of confidence, shyness and sadness, which led to feelings of inferiority and worthlessness.
I suffered from bullying as a young person, mostly at home, at the hands of my mother’s partner – my brother’s father – and, my mother, who would sadly and inevitably take his side in belittling me. Favouritism was used as a weapon by him too. He would praise my sister and give her preferential treatment in a way to isolate me from the rest of my family. They would claim I was “imagining things” if I said anything about how I was being treated. Years later, gaining my independence with a job and by getting away from him, I found that all of this bullying was based on his jealousy of me. Much of it was based on his sadness and dissatisfaction with life, and taking it out on me was his reaction to that. Was I suffering? Yes. Was I ill? Perhaps. But it was caused by these factors beyond my control. As soon as I gained financial and social independence from these conditions, I became a happier more confident, educated and motivated person. But the societal conditions which allowed me to get a job and go to college had to exist in order for me to do that. It was 2005 and Ireland had reached the peak of the so-called Celtic Tiger. The conditions created by the Celtic Tiger – high employment, lots of job opportunities etc. – were beyond my control. Age may have been a factor too. But consider this; since I had become unemployed and lost much of my independence and positive social connections that come with it, I have found that I have stumbled into the old dark places again.
One might argue that “you were pubescent; those hormones may have contributed to negative and confused feelings”. Indeed, age may have been a factor, it is true. I had turned 19 in 2005, I had developed as an adult and exited the tumultuous period of teenage years. This brought confidence and clarity of thought. I was in my first “proper” job. But consider this; since I had become unemployed and lost much of my independence and positive social connections that come with it around 2012, at 26, I have found that I have stumbled into the old dark places again familiar to me from the past.
I’m okay now. I am in an okay position and I have the education and experience which allows me to understand the world and myself a little better now. This might save me from falling utterly into depression, and get me through bouts of low-confidence and anxiety. But if I were in a worse job, or still unemployed, perhaps even my understanding of the world and things might not save me – it might even contribute to worsening feelings and thoughts. Who knows? But fighting spirit is always good, so is learning.
Although Irish society may not blame the victim as it used to, it now blames the disease, which is essentially blaming the victim in a less direct way. In a sense, “it is not your fault you’re depressed, but you are mentally ill”. We now simply blame the illness which has attached itself to the person and seem to suggest that it can be worked off as extra weight can be worked off through excercise, as if external factors are not an issue. The victim should “be positive”, “talk about it” etc. The one thing we certainly do not blame for others’ mental illness is ourselves. I have never read in a newspaper, or heard on the radio, or watched on television that a system, which prioritises profit and competition over people’s well-being, might contribute to suicide. According to the establishment, mental illness causes suicide, not capitalism. It’s akin to saying the bullet murdered the victim, not the person.