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Synthesis/Regeneration 60   (Winter 2013)

Against Miserablism

by Richard Burke

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” —George Bernard Shaw

I was at a recent meeting of leftist activists. Someone offered the observation that the reason that the right is successful, and the left isn’t, is because the right acts, while the left merely talks. Is this true? Sometimes it seems that the problem is actually “activistism,” a prioritizing of activity over theorizing. Arguably the left is much more into activism than the right, and offers an unending succession of actions and activities, in response to any number of events, policies and situations offered by the ruling class and its politicians. Say the words “protest demonstration” and what is the immediate image—a group of conservatives out in the street, or a group of leftists?

Starting in 1999, we have had a number of large-scale demonstrations against globalization; against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the revolts of the Arab spring; the anti-austerity up-risings in Europe; the revolt against antiunion laws in Madison, Wisconsin; the Occupy Wall Street movement which spread throughout the country, and led to street battles between Occupiers and the police; and the recent anti-NATO events in Chicago 2012. Faced with the actual historical record, the idea that the left merely talks while the right acts seem to be easily refuted. The problem is not a lack of action, but the fact that these actions seem to be ineffectual, to have little effect on those in power or to spark a larger mass revolt against the capitalist world system. Perhaps the root of the left’s problems is really miserablism instead.

The term “miserablism” was coined by the surrealist poet and theoretician Andre Breton in a 1956 essay in his book Surrealism and Painting. The essay dealt with the state of art in France at the time, but since Breton was arguably one of the most politically revolutionary poets of the twentieth century, the term has a wider application. Miserablism is a pessimistic state of mind, the belief that no matter what we do the situation won’t change. Miserablism is the opposite of utopianism, a dystopian mindset that believes we are all doomed.

Miserablism is a fatalistic belief that we have no choice but to submit to the reality imposed upon us by the wealthy and powerful, that “resistance is futile.” Gramsci may have spoken about “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” but miserablism is pessimism of the intellect, the imagination and, consequently, the will; miserablism demoralizes. Miserablism loves to cynically crow about the “absurdity of reality.” Miserablism is systematically encouraged and spread by capitalism because it is its most powerful weapon against revolt.

That the World-Left has been in a depressed and despairing state of mind for decades is not a merely personal observation. Immanuel Wallerstein, originator of “world-systems analy-sis,” commented on this a decade ago in The Decline of American Power. Wallerstein observed that this depressed state could not simply be explained by recent electoral victories by the right and analyzed it as having two main causes: the defeat of the left’s “two-step” strategy pursued for over a century, and the loss of belief in inevitable progress.

The “two-step” strategy Wallerstein refers to was what the left had historically seen as its path to success. Step one: take state power, step two: transform the world. The problem is that by the 1960s the World-Left had been quite successful in achieving step one, whether in its Marxist Leninist or Social Democratic approaches, but step two did not happen.

The “actually existing socialist” regimes turned into totalitarian parodies of the idea of socialism. Social Democrats, despite having offered worthy reforms, lost sight of a vision of economic justice and democracy, content to accept capitalism while making it “kinder and gentler.” As a result, the world’s population began to lose faith in the ability of the left to pull off step two.

The second cause, a loss of the belief in inevitable progress, is more subtle and insidious. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the belief in the inevitability of progress is not strictly speaking a left-wing viewpoint, but has historically functioned as an enabling myth for the capitalist world system, and was accepted by left, right, and centrist political currents. This was the idea that the direction of historical time was essentially an ascending arrow, leading to the “good society” sometime in the future. The development of science and technology guaranteed this outcome, and while the present might be dark, the future would necessarily be bright.

The left embodied this optimism perhaps more than the center or right political currents. The early socialists were unabashedly utopian, putting forth plans for social reconstruction which they hoped would, by their very desirability, lead to their adoption on a global scale. Marxism would later appear, ostensibly eschewing utopianism and offering a critique of capitalism instead. Can anyone deny that there was nonetheless an undercurrent of utopian hopes that sustained the Marxist movement? Marxism might avoid explicit utopianism, yet looked forward to communism, a stage of social development based on the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” and where the state would wither away, the administration of people abolished by the administration of things. Marxism took for granted the inevitability of progress.

This began to change after World War Two, leading to the situation Breton critiqued in the world of art and by extension the larger global society coming into being. The most destructive war in history, the horrors of the holocaust, and above all the development of nuclear weapons contributed to this mind-set. Surrealism, which had dominated the prewar cultural world, was succeeded by existentialism, with its essentially pessimistic view of the absurd human condition.

In the 60s, a growing awareness of the ecological limits to growth began to appear. Sci-ence and technology, once seen as unquestioned benefactors of human society, were now recognized as being capable of delivering a dystopia as well as a utopia, or perhaps even the extinction of the human race itself. Existentialism was succeeded by Postmodernism, with its rejection of “grand narratives,” a despair over the existence of Truth itself, and a rejection of the possibility of progress.

Thus the present depressed situation of the World-Left today. The defeat of the ”two-step” strategy is in some ways the most easily remedied of the two causes. The alternative would be a strategy which is not purely statist in orientation, but which complements electoral efforts with direct action and extra-parliamentary struggles. After all, the left has a long, suppressed history of advocating decentralized and self-managed approaches to socialism.

From Syndicalism and Guild Socialism to “Parecon” and Participatory Planning, any number of models has been offered as an alternative to a centrally planned command economy, or merely Keynsian government management of economic activity. This does not necessarily imply a strictly Anarchist strategy, but the combining of extra-parliamentary struggles with political parties pursuing policies consciously crafted to aid those struggles. Perhaps the problem is one of historical inertia; having placed such an emphasis on statist approaches, the collective intellect of the World-Left is still dominated by those who placed their hopes in these strategies.

The second cause is somewhat harder to address. “Inevitable progress,” while not a strictly left-wing idea, played a major role in providing a sense of optimism which sustained the left. At times it could be a profoundly depoliticizing idea. After all, if the future would inevitably be better than the past, then what is the need for activist work? The loss of this belief is nonetheless profoundly demoralizing; yet here, too, we could look to the past for clues to ways to get out of our present dilemma.

Charles Fourier, the Utopian Socialist most beloved by surrealists, had a philosophy of history with ascending and descending arcs. For Fourier, history since the appearance of the human race was on a descending arc, one which would end with the adoption of his schemes for social reform and initiate an ascending arc of history that would last for 80,000 years. Gustav Landauer, the anarchist thinker who nonetheless accepted the post of minister of education in the Munich Soviet Republic at the end of the First World War, rejected the belief in inevitable progress, yet advocated that, “Socialism need not come...but Socialism can come and should come, when we wish it.”

In more contemporary times, Immanuel Wallerstein has advocated a view that progress is not inevitable, but is possible. His world-systems analysis recognizes the reality of cycles in history, but because no cycle returns to its exact starting point, there is nonetheless a “secular drift” which insures that no world-system is immortal. In his view, we are coming to the end of the capitalist world-system’s life cycle, and it is precisely in such periods that individual and collective action has the possibility of changing things. The choice before us for the middle of this century is between two possible world-systems, one which attempts to maintain the hierarchies and inequalities of capitalism in a new form, and one which is more democratic and egalitarian. Environmentalists should take note that it is precisely the ecological crisis that Wallerstein sees as one of the factors leading to the end of capitalism.

Yet there is a further problem for the World-Left, which Wallerstein’s analysis leaves unaddressed. This is that the left has become a movement of people who pride themselves on being hardheaded realists. Now hardheaded realists are very good at analysis and critique, but lousy at offering visions of an alternative. Even worse, they find it logically and psychologically impossible to avoid philosophies of despair. Doing so undermines the hardheaded realist philosophy they pride themselves on! This is problematic for a movement for social change. After all, human beings have put up with conditions of despair and misery for thousands of years, yet only occasionally do they revolt against this situation.

The real question is not why they don’t revolt, but why they at times do. The answer is that people revolt when they become convinced that it is possible to succeed; that they can really change their condition. Now just how successful will a depressed, despairing movement of miserablists moaning that “we’re all doomed, we can’t win” really be in inspiring such revolts? Creating a democratic, libertarian, socialist alternative is a project that will involve a great deal of effort and work. These efforts will not succeed in gaining wider support in the absence of an optimistic, even utopian, attitude on the part of the World-Left.

This is the challenge that the World-Left faces in the coming years: to learn to value imagination, intuition, and the ability to inspire even more than the ability to analyze and reason. Not to reject reason and evidence, for these too are absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. We must learn the wisdom of valuing creativity over critique, of optimism over pessimism. There are, ultimately, such things as self-fulfilling prophecies. Miserablism is such a self-fulfilling prophecy, one which will undermine all efforts to prove that “another world is possible.” To be successful in its political aims the World-Left must purge miserablism from its collective heart and mind!

R. Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and teacher living in St. Louis.

[5 dec 12]

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