By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
Some years ago now, while researching a book that eventually came out as Somebody Else’s Century, I spent time in Ahmedabad, a city in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat. Ahmedabad has a long and interesting history as a place where Hindus and Muslims lived side by side in a state of admirable co-existence. Gujarat and Ahmedabad have a shorter history as the scene of a deadly Hindu-nationalist rampage against the Muslim population in 2002, when Narendra Modi, the Hindutva ideologue now serving as India’s prime minister, was Gujarat’s chief minister.
A place, thus, to challenge one’s idea of humanity’s goodness or otherwise.
A taxi ride from Ahmedabad lies Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s administrative capital. It was there I met a noted sociologist named Shiv Visvanathan, who then professed at a research center called the Ambani Institute. In A Carnival for Science, which Oxford published in 1997, Shiv gave us the notion of cognitive justice, a critique of the hegemony of Western knowledge and a big, bright banner waved in the cause of plurality in human thought and the validity of non–Western perspectives.
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I loved my afternoons with Shiv, a burly, affable man of quick intelligence and immense learning. We were in his study on the last of them, talking of all India had got right and wrong as it made itself modern, and I asked a question I had taken to posing often during my travels. “Shiv,” I said, “are you an optimist or a pessimist?”
Shiv smiled broadly, leaned across his desk, and missed not a beat. “An optimist, of course,” he said. “Why would I bother otherwise? What would be the point of critique?”
That was Shiv. That moment was his lasting gift to me.
I was prompted to summon these memories after ScheerPost published “Between Myth and History,” a speech I gave mid–December before the Committee for the Republic, a Washington group that opposes empire and the imperial presidency. Here is the text ScheerPost published, and here a video of the occasion from Empire Salons, the Committee’s archive.
It was the comment thread appended to the ScheerPost text that set me to thinking again about optimism and pessimism.
“You’re an idealist, Patrick, and your intentions are good,” a Vietnam veteran named Tom Calarco wrote. “But what you want ain’t gonna happen. The power structure is too ingrained.” Ingrained meaning entrenched, I assume.
“Patrick Lawrence is an optimist,” a reader named Robert Sinuhe noted. “The rosiness of his writing belies the fact that people have no power to change things.”
Wow. There is a lot of pessimism around, I began to conclude. Where is Shiv Visvanathan now that we really need him?
Then came Selina Sweet. “I am stirred by your vision and wisdom. Transformation depends on the death of the old,” the aptly named Ms. Sweet wrote. “Whether on the individual psycho-emotional level or on the macro nation level, I sure hope you keep on this theme because at some point, when enough people get it the pessimism expressed by commentator Robert Sinuhe (the attitude that the current state is a fait accompli lasting into eternity) will be cracked apart to allow the life force to express itself once again as evolution—in this case an evolution of consciousness.”
A kindred spirit, well-spoken at that.
But then: “We can’t because we’re a bunch of completely clueless welfare recipients. Draping ourselves in the pessimism of Benjamin Franklin just to find an excuse. But we don’t have one. It’s our fault that so many people are dying, that so many innocent people are in jail, that our living standards are plummeting.” These are the thoughts of a reader who signs as SpiritZd.
There is more of this, as readers who peruse the comments will see.
One way or another it seemed to me the optimism evident in the December speech struck a nerve among ScheerPost’s readers and probably among many others. We Americans—the question is apparently most acute among Americans—do not seem to know what to do with either our pessimism or our optimism. And it is the optimists among us, I surmise, who are furthest out to sea. Pessimists seem to possess a confidence optimists do not. Why would this be? Maybe Mencken had it right a century or so ago. “A pessimist is someone in possession of all the facts,” the great H.L. once said.
Let us investigate this question, taking as our guide an activist and political philosopher who knew in every cell of his failing body whereof he spoke.
It is Antonio Gramsci who is commonly credited with the thought, “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” But it seems Romain Rolland, the French writer who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1915, actually said it first. Gramsci went on to make it a sort of political ethos, a guide to thought, or a way to manage one’s mind and live in the world as it is. We should take note of Gramsci’s views on optimism and pessimism. He had much to say about both. Mussolini imprisoned Gramsci, a founding member of the Partito Comunista d’Italia, the PCI, in 1926, and he remained there until he died in 1937. It was in those years he wrote his celebrated Prison Notebooks—30 of them comprising 3,000 pages of reflections. Prison was a radical deprivation—he lost a public life of political participation to one of solitude and incapacitation. It was also 11 years of agony, fraught with insomnia, violent migraines, convulsions, systemic failure. But Gramsci seems to have understood from the first that his most dangerous enemy was despair—lapsing into a state of purposeless quiescence, as if falling into a deep, dark hole. Here he is in a letter to his sister-in-law, Tatiana, shortly after his arrest:
I am obsessed by the idea that I ought to do something für ewig [enduring, lasting forever]. . . I want, following a fixed plan, to devote myself intensively and systematically to some subject that will absorb me and give a focus to my inner life.
This is an early hint, in my read, of the thinking that was to come. In this letter Gramsci made deep connections—on one hand between pessimism and a state of depression and passivity, and on the other optimism and the taking of action. In the latter he saw salvation, and I could not agree more: I have long thought that a principal source of depression is the sensation of powerlessness. Whenever I have been overcome in this way I have said to myself, “Take the next step. It may be a mile, it may be six inches. Take it and you will have begun to act.”
Most of all, Gramsci seems to have concluded as his teeth fell out and he could no longer eat solids, that optimism is something one must purposefully marshal, cultivate, against all threats of dejection and hopelessness. In letters and in passages in the Notebooks he identified optimism as essential to all political action. What good would optimism be, he asked in “Against Pessimism,” published in 1924, when he was still able to place pieces in newspapers, “if we were… actively optimistic only when the cows were plump, when the situation was favorable?”
So we have this man with absolutely nothing going for him, when PCI (“Peachy,” in Italian) was reduced to a roomful of underground activists, making the case for optimism—elevating it, indeed, to a philosophic precept. Optimism as a decision one makes, optimism as a prerequisite for action and at the same time an action in itself: Maybe there is something for SpiritZd, along with the rest of us, to learn from this.
There were debates during Gramsci’s time as to what optimism actually was. No, not a philosophic concept, one critic said: Optimism and pessimism are sentiments and in this share a common origin. Then another argument: O.K., they are sentiments, but all philosophic positions are rooted in sentiment. I do not know where I come out on this question. To me, optimism and pessimism are, like anticipation and anxiety, two ways we have of looking forward—the light and dark sides of the same moon. It is ours to choose one or the other and then live out our choice.
There are perils for the optimist. One of them, as noted in that speech, is angélisme, that French term I have liked since I learned it. It means dreamy idealism, a disconnection from reality. Gramsci, who resolutely insisted on possession of all the facts, had no time for such indulgences. He considered ungrounded optimism a “vulgar liberal conception,” to borrow from two Gramsci scholars—a folly and so a destructive distraction from the work to hand.
And it is true: You find this kind of infantile optimism in the columns of Nick Kristof, the winsome Boy Scout of The New York Times opinion page. You find it in all the “progressive” magazines, with their pieces about how capitalism has been defeated and socialism in America is just around the corner, the long war won. This is mere illusion, and liberals and progressives of this kind have need of illusions because they cannot face the one confrontation that matters above all others in our time—the confrontation with power. Confront power effectively and solutions to all else, from the climate crisis to war, famine, corruption and so on, will follow.
My own navigation through this thicket comes to this: Politics as the art of the possible is a nonsense. There is no time left to play footsie with liberal gradualists. We can no longer begin with an assessment of what is possible in the present context and work toward it. We begin with what is necessary, and the work comes down to making the necessary possible. As to my own tendency in the direction of angélisme, it seems to me the enormity of the task I see as ours to undertake is not an excuse to shrink from it, as readers such as Tom Calarco and Robert Sinuhe appear to think.
Kicking the dirt, in other words, does not finally constitute an intelligent response to our circumstances. Defeatism is an illusion, too—another form of flinching. No, the enormity of the task is a measure of the urgency with which we must assume it.
Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, the Gramsci scholars just mentioned and to whom I am gratefully indebted, raise the question of optimism and its relationship to the orthodox Western belief, prevalent since the Age of Materialism took hold in the mid-19th century, in Progress. This term gets a cap “P” because it is an ideology, like Americanism or Communism. The chimera of never-ending Progress has seduced Westerners, Americans most of all, for so long we are not anymore even aware of the seduction.
The instrument of seduction, now as when we had the telegraph, the railroad, and the cotton gin, is technological advance. Today we take seriously the Steve Jobs thought that Apple will change the world. Apple has made it possible to take better pictures of our shrimp cocktails and post them on Facebook. This is a change of method, means, nothing more. Technological progress has nothing to do with true human, humane progress, because it has always served economic interests and because these interests have never allowed technology to be informed by philosophy, social relations, and other things to do with advancing the human cause and the human spirit.
No again, optimism of the kind worth cultivating and living is in no wise grounded in the orthodoxy of Progress. It is better understood as reflecting that most important of 20th century recognitions: Mankind exists in a perpetual state of becoming, meaning we are kinetic creatures ever evolving, one moment to the next, according to the social relations that define us, now this way, now that. This thought did not originate with the French Existentialists—it was around in Gramsci’s time. But the postwar French, Sartre et al., showed us that in all our becoming we find freedom, the freedom to act as we choose—true freedom, not Ronald Reagan’s kind—and that freedom assigns us responsibilities for every single thing we do.
Maybe this is the feature of the optimistic stance toward life, events, and our potential to act upon them I value most: The optimist, fully in possession of the facts and so harboring a certain pessimism of the mind, nonetheless assumes his or her responsibility for the world in which he or she lives precisely as the pessimist does not. With optimism come things to do. Why would one bother otherwise?