What are the Grounds for Hope in a World of Wrecks?

January 8, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

The title is a line from Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’, which I read over Christmas as an antidote to the grimness of the daily news. It’s a beautifully written collection of her essays and, at 140 pages, mercifully short.

In the afterword, Solnit explains:

‘This book was written for the encouragement of activists who share some of my dreams and values. And it was written against something – a defeatist, dismissive frame of mind that is far too widespread. We talk about politics as though they were a purely rational exercise in the world of deeds and powers, but how we view that world and act in it has its roots in identities and emotions. There is, in other words, an inner life to politics.’

First, some of the wonderful turns of phrase and quotes:

‘A disaster is a lot like a revolution when it comes to disruption and improvisation, to new roles and an unnerving or exhilarating sense that now anything is possible.’

From Eduardo Galeano: ‘Utopia is on the horizon. When I walk two steps it takes two steps back. I walk ten steps and it is ten steps further away. What is utopia for? It is for this, for walking.’

From Cornel West, the idea of ‘jazz freedom fighters’, a ‘mode of being in the world, an improvisational model of protean, fluid and flexible disposition toward reality, suspicious of either/or viewpoints.’

On the importance of history:

‘One of the most common effects of success is to be taken for granted…. We have a seldom-told, seldom-remembered history of victories and transformations that can give us confidence that yes, we can change the world because we have many times before. You row forward looking back and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant of our victories.’

The essay that jumped out for me is on ‘False Hope and Easy Despair’. The false hope, often peddled by politicians is ‘not that another world is possible, but that it is unnecessary and everything is fine – now go back to sleep.’ Talking about the Bush administration, she links this to ‘false fear’ (of terrorism, migrants): ‘false hope and false fear become a neat carrot and stick luring the democratic beast along to its own demise’. (And this was prescient – published in 2004, long before the arrival of Donald Trump et al).

She contrasts this with ‘Left despair’.

‘To say that everything without exception is going straight to hell is not an alternative vision but only an inverted version of the mainstream’s ‘everything’s fine’…. The activists who deny their own power and possibility choose to shake off their sense of obligation: if they are doomed to lose, they don’t have to do very much except situate themselves as beautiful losers or at least virtuous ones.

There are the elaborate theory hawkers, who invest their opponents with superhuman abilities that never falter and can never be successfully resisted – they seem obsessed with an enemy that never lets them go, though the enemy is in part their own fantasy. There are those who see despair as solidarity with the oppressed, though the oppressed may not particularly desire that version of themselves, since they may have had a life before being victims and might hope to have one after. And gloom is not much of a gift. Then there are those whose despair is personal in origin, projected outward as political analysis. This is often coupled with nostalgia for a time that may never have existed or may have been terrible for some, a location in which all that is broken now can be imagined to have once been whole. It is a way around introspection.’

Finally, on the nature of hope.

‘Hope is not a door, but a sense that there might be a door at some point. Hopefulness is risky, since it is after all a form of trust, trust in the unknown and the possible, even in discontinuity. To be hopeful is to take on a different persona, one that risks disappointment, betrayal…. Hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world.’

Other stuff I’ve been reading makes a much more prosaic case for hope, based on the extraordinary improvements in human wellbeing over the last century (a la Charles Kenny). What I took from ‘Hope in the Dark’ were beautiful insights into something else – the politics and psychology of hope (or its absence). As with the chimera of ‘evidence-based policy making’, evidence alone is only a part of the story.

One caveat/question: The book was first published in 2004, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, and heavily influenced by the despondent state of parts of the US Left at that point. Do people think, 20 years on, that much has changed? If so, what?

January 8, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. Duncan,

    Thanks for this. Solnit perhaps, within my limited view, is my most respected thinker/writer alive today. I quote often from this book, especially the paragraph that includes:

    ““Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

    I want to read the new forward and afterword to see how she sees things now in this context

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