In my previous post, I wrote about how much of the American working-class, in general, reject the ideas of both Clinton and Trump. Where, then, does Trump’s support come from? In an earlier post I also wrote about how the middle-class is generally more conservative when it comes to things like inequality and climate change, and so members of this class are therefore more likely to be Trump supporters. The following passage from a recent Guardian column by Sarah Smarsh confirms this:
Earlier this year, primary exit polls revealed that Trump voters were, in fact, more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000 – higher than that of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters. Forty-four percent of them had college degrees, well above the national average of 33% among whites or 29% overall. In January, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams reported findings that a penchant for authoritarianism – not income, education, gender, age or race –predicted Trump support.
These facts haven’t stopped pundits and journalists from pushing story after story about the white working class’s giddy embrace of a bloviating demagogue.
Mainstream media is set up to fail the ordinary American
Based on Trump’s campaign rhetoric and available data, it appears that most of his voters this November will be people who are getting by well enough but who think of themselves as victims.
From the two most prominent runners for US President, we could perceive that “anyone can be President – even one of these two”. You may understand where this kind of argument comes from. The fact that Trump and Clinton are the forerunners for the Oval Office is surely a perversion of the concept of American freedom? Hasn’t this concept become stretched and twisted and distorted? It is surely positive that anyone can campaign to be President, but these two, making it all the way through that great American democratic system? Surely this is a sick joke taken too far? Is this an absurd level of democracy? Too much democracy? Are we to blame, or is it the stupid half of the country? America, the land where anyone can be President – it’s the American Dream, right? And it is reality for Clinton and Trump, in front of us now, in its fantastical magnitude.
Conversely, this so-called race between Clinton and Trump is an example of how unlikely it is for anyone to become President, let alone be able to campaign for election.
Poor people, ordinary working people, and even moderates who fight for the needs of ordinary people may find it nigh impossible to campaign effectively for Presidency. Even the mildly left-wing Bernie Sanders was swimming against the much stronger establishment current; With all that has happened to the US and its economy in the past few years, the establishment still had no appetite for Sanders. Of course, millions of people actively supported Sanders in a movement not seen in the US in recent history, but the lives of those activists and supporters, their needs, ideas and voices are of little concern, and the media did not air them.
The central point here is that although anyone can run for President, the main discriminating factors are not intelligence, truth, ethics; They are wealth, power, and ruthlessness, with a dedication and loyalty only to people and institutions who share these traits and the system which encourages it. Anyone who does even slightly differently, like Sanders, is instinctively expelled by the system itself.
Alas, Sanders was betrayed by his own party whose interests are always corporate, and thus, were choking politically and financially on the very moderate policies Sanders espoused. He should have known – others did. Sanders was as bad for the Democratic Party as Trump was for the Republican Party, even if it was for opposite beliefs. Better, then, for the media to portray him as a crazed radical (or,at least, misguided, during kinder moments) who may have had good intentions, but was not the sensible choice. Ordinary Sanders voters were not coaxed though. Unlike Sanders in his defeat, his movement of followers remain convinced that Clinton is not a genuine alternative. Her being the lesser-evil to Trump is not a point the many newly politically mobilised people find endearing . They can think for themselves – now more politically sophisticated and experienced than ever. And they’re talking to each other and convincing each other. Many thousands of them actually transferred their allegiance from the Democratic Party to Jil Stein and her Green Party.
The resultant argument and movement against voting for the “lesser evil” is the most pervasive I have yet witnessed from the US, and it may not merely be because of visibility on social media (though social media likely helps); In 2008 social media was awash with support for Obama, including from my naive self – there was very little talk then of a third alternative to combat capitalistic trends; Now, social media is awash with confusion and enlightenment in equal quantities firing off in every direction. This (like everything) is of course potentially very good and bad, and contains the ingredients for social effusion; Disillusion; Revolution; Reaction. Let’s wait and… no. Let’s discuss, and read, and write, and protest, and see.
If we were to generalise the American middle class, we could say that it behaves in a way such as a spoilt teenager might, who causes their parents grief because they do not get their own way all of the time. The fact that global warming is a major concern for the whole planet, or that poverty and inequality increase as a result of current and past American economic policy, shouldn’t get in the way of a middle-class American’s pursuit of wealth, or, indeed, of their delusion of being able to become wealthy. And utlimately, that’s what it all is, delusion. Any scientific findings that contradict their illogical perceptions and dreams, are to be ruthlessly fought and suppressed.
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.
That quote may have been erroneously attributed to Steinbeck, but there is nonetheless an element of truth to it. Its truth increases if you replace “poor” with “middle-class”. Some of the American petit-bourgeoisie sure do “love that smell of the emissions”, as Sarah Palin once so bluntly put it. “Adolescent America” is now personified through awful Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – their vacuous bickering, throughout what is supposed to be the highest forum for debate in the US, the Presidential Elections – is starting to look like the last great tantrum of the bourgeois baby boomers. The politics of American capitalism has certainly reached its crisis.
Credit must be paid, though, to the American working class, who have fought as tirelessly and as determinedly as any working class around the world. They backed Bernie Sanders, and fought for him against all the odds, and although Sanders capitulated to Clinton in the end, that hasn’t caused the core of the American working-class (educated and energised as it is) to capitulate to the promises of Clinton nor the rhetoric of Trump.
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?’
Results of the Brexit Referendum has dominated the narrative over the past 24 hours, through mainstream media and social media. I thought it would be interesting to share some of the points, observations and opinions on it, from an Irish point-of-view, which were posted on facebook and appeared on my feed.
The Referendum results have created a full-blown crisis in the UK and total panic in Brussels. Denmark and Holland will go next. The French elite will be under huge pressure to concede a referendum. The German establishment will be meeting frequently and in secret to prepare a Plan B, which will mean a serious restructuring of the Eurozone.
It was a revolt against the political establishment (Ed Miliband acknowledged this fact) and had Corbyn come out for LEAVE his party would have been in a very strong position. The Tories are wounded. Labour and others should demand an early election. Impossible to wait till 2020. And the election campaign should be waged fiercely for an anti-capitalist programme and fighting the Right on racism/xenophobia, etc. Mass campaigning of the sort that won Corbyn the leadership is the way forward.
PS: After I debated Varoufakis he came and whispered in my ear: ‘Tariq, don’t doubt that if there is a Brexit, I won’t be shedding any tears.’ Time for him to say it in public…
Corbyn had an opportunity to stand up to the right-wing in his own party and put forward a principled Left and socialist position on the bosses’ club that is the EU. If he had, he would have been vindicated by the popular anger of the working class.
Instead, Corbyn and others on the Left capitulated. To quote Brendan O’Neill, the Left threw their “lot in with the very people it was founded a few hundred years ago to challenge: kings and tyrants and other benign guardians of the stupid people.”
Why? Because they were so frightened of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage that they sided with the Tories and EU to keep them in check? Cowards. Cowards who have abandoned the idea that working class have agency and can defend its own interests without having to rely on the benevolence of its enemies.
There’s a reckoning coming and it’s now time to rebuild a mass socialist alternative that stands in the legacy of Tony Benn and Bob Crow. It’s up to Corbyn et al now to decide which side they want to be on.
Via a Facebook user:
One thing is clear: The decision of Corbyn, the Labour left, and much of the wider left to support a Remain vote in the EU referendum was an incredible political own goal.
The referendum showed massive working class anger and disaffection. Had they argued for a leave vote, they could have dramatically changed the debate, and been well positioned to benefit from the enormous instability this will cause within the Tory government.
Instead, they sided with the establishment and the capitalist class. In doing so, they allowed UKIP and the populist right to be the main voice of people’s discontent and allowed the debate to be focused to a significant extent on immigration with no effective means of combatting anti-immigrant sentiments.
And of course, taking a remain position hasn’t stopped the Blairites and the media from blaming Corbyn for the result and looking for his head.
And what did they do it all for? To defend the anti-democratic, neo-liberal, racist EU austerity project.
There will now be a political crisis and a major discussion about what kind of exit should happen; it is still possible to cut across and challenge the anti-immigrant right and their narrative. But it would have been a lot easier if the left had held its nerve and stuck to its principles on the EU from the start.
Another Anonymous Facebook User:
In Barking and Dagenham, where less than half of the population now identify as white British, 62% of people voted to leave. In neighbouring Newham, one of the poorest and also the most ethnically diverse area of the country, 47% voted to leave.
Difficult decision to make I’ll admit. Big business, TTIP etc on one side, racist fuckers leading on the other. The left should have properly backed breaking from Europe to take the arguments away from the bigots.
One thing that is clear is this morning is hilarious, “the markets”, the banks, big business have gone demented because of a democratic decision made by an actual population of people, imagine that? Pity the head bangers are heading up the Leave side. And all racists across Europe are going to jump on the bandwagon and raise their profile through this decision. The Left across Europe needs to get its shit together to channel this decision in the correct direction and demonstrate the real reasons this decision is important to stop the neo-liberal agenda of the European project.
A social Europe based on solidarity YES
A Europe based on controlling populations and pushing an economic agenda NO
Ugh, Capitalists … :
Huey P. Ashmore:
People going on about how Brexit is a victory for backward racists like Farage should probably remember that the EU is paying the quasi-dictatorship of Turkey a 3 billion Euro bribe to block Syrian refugees coming into Europe with military force.
Ruth Coppinger TD:
Media and establishment shocked by Brexit. The left case against the undemocratic and neo liberal EU was not as widely publicised as it would have been had Corbyn and the left made it, but those are factors in the large working class turnout that delivered the result. We need a Europe for the millions, not the millionaires.
I Worked Hard For It All, Without Help From Anyone.
She was working from home alone and had become slightly hungry. She thought about her options from what was available and resolved to make a ham and cheese sandwich. All the necessary ingredients were there in her cupboards and fridge – her favourite bread, cheese, style of ham, butter, sauces etc. – and so she began preparing them. Finally, when the sandwich was as she prefers a sandwich to be, she ate. She made her lunch and ate it. Following her satisfying lunch she was fuelled to do all of the other activities that she did during the day (with the aid of quite a bit of coffee). It had fuelled her to continue to work hard and get on with her life for a little longer; fuelled her towards hitting more of those targets and the rewards promised to her for her hard and important work. A step closer to that bonus, securing that commission and getting that new high-powered German luxury executive saloon. But there is a background to her sandwich which has been neglected.
A few days earlier she ordered groceries online from her local grocery store (because being a busy person, she had no time to go to the shop). Some of those groceries would become her sandwich ingredients. A woman whom she would never meet received her order and processed it. That person gave the order, in turn, to her colleague who collected the groceries as they were listed; she spent about 40 minutes gathering them in a trolley. Once they were all collected and verified, the order was arranged in bags and crates for delivery to the home of the sandwich loving lady. At the appointed time, a delivery driver – one of three on duty in the shop at that moment – would lift the crates into his van and deliver them to her home. When the customer signed for the delivery, the delivery man was the only person whom she had contact with throughout the process.
A day before the delivery, the bread, cheese, ham, butter, sauces and everything else was packaged in the facilities of the respective food companies and delivered to grocery stores all around the area. Packaging people packaged, delivery drivers delivered to shops and supermarkets. Prior to the packaging process, bakers baked the bread (with everything that that involves), cheesemakers made the cheese (with everything that that involves), butchers – and people working for meat companies – oversaw the production of the pre-packed sliced ham, and creameries and sauce factories were filled with employees doing various things to mass-produce butter and sauce.
Prior to that, the bakery company needed to order the ingredients to bake bread, the creameries needed ingredients to create cheese and butter. All the different producers needed the tools to make products from their ingredients, and they needed engineers, technicians, IT experts and mechanics to ensure the tools and machines continued to work efficiently. Prior to that, countless people did countless things to make all of this happen.
How many people does it take to make a ham and cheese sandwich?
When she considered what to eat for lunch that afternoon, the process would have been more or less the same had she decided to have a salad or a chocolate bar or anything else.
We are all connected. We are all part of something called society, doing something which contributes to one another’s lives. All of what we have is only made possible due to the work of others and this simple fact is generally ignored. The working-class, producing all of this essential stuff, receives no media coverage for their achievements and thankless drudgery, and will never experience owning that luxury executive vehicle. None of us – however hard working – has achieved anything on our own. It has been made possible by the efforts and struggles of countless humble people. They carry this out daily, invisible. The very expression of our individualism – and we are all different and unique and wonderful – is dependent on each other.
Food for thought the next time you make yourself a sandwich.
Does it say something about our consideration of the Irish Revolution generally, that the rebels’ original writings remain obscure and are not available in any of the main Irish bookshops – you will not find them in Eason or Dubray anyway. One would find it difficult not to notice the great many books currently being made available about the 1916 period – some good, many bad, new re-tellings and recently re-published old ones – but these are mostly summaries, opinions of characters and ideologies, secondary sources, or second-hand accounts of events.
I have seen no publications of any of Patrick Pearse’s work for example – someone often described as a poet and play-write. Also conspicuous by its absence is James Connolly’s essential Labour In Irish History;its procurement is most likely to be gained only in back-alley partisan bookshops, from certain political groups, or on-line. Apart from the Revolution Papers why is there no complete re-publications of anything written by Arthur Griffith? – a person who, although he did not participate in the Rising, was a prolific political writer of that time on behalf of Sinn Féin. I have my own opinions on why all of this might be, but here I am only raising the question.
Can we understand what the rebels intended without having read what they wrote? After all, Pearse, Connolly, and Griffith were very different politically and disagreed on fundamental issues, (Griffith was quite conservative, Connolly was a socialist). These stark ideological differences are not generally acknowledged (and I fear not generally realised) in an environment where those names, often mentioned in the same breath, are synonymous with the nationalist struggle against Britain and nothing else. It seems to me, that the current environment being promoted is one which acknowledges the characters of the 1916 period, and celebrates them, but does not encourage us to understand them.
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.