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Privatizing Hope, Individualizing Politics

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Ronald Aronson has an interesting, if rather lengthy, essay about the privatization of hope, adapted from his forthcoming book. I don’t agree with all of it. He falls into the frequent trap of bipartisanism when discussing the mid-20th century without taking into account the party alignments of that time in order to say “bipartisan solutions were once possible and now aren’t and isn’t that bad,” which is a question with an actual answer that is usually ignored. And I think the New Left gets too much blame for individualizing activism, as those activists were already a creation of postwar consumerism who turned that consumer lifestyle toward activism. There are other things to nitpick about the history as well–the late 20th century didn’t invent advertising and his example of baseball and consumerism falters in the significant, if less bright and loud, advertising of prewar baseball.

But the overall essay is really interesting in thinking about how strong a role the atomized, empowered individual plays in our culture and in our politics. A couple of excerpts:

The most stunning instance of this shift is the eruption of the Tea Party in early 2009. By what political alchemy did the only movement generated during the first three years of the Great Recession demand more of the same policies that caused the crisis? The financial collapse of September 2008 refuted thirty years of deregulaton and dismantling of the welfare state but provoked little action at the other end of the political spectrum, which was busy electing the new president and celebrating his victory but not pushing him on policy or giving him needed support. Still, wouldn’t the next activist wave—after thirty-five years of top-down class struggle and increasing inequality—be a movement of the unemployed and foreclosed demanding collective action for jobs, relief, and punishment of the business executives and regulators behind the financial collapse?

Instead, the most successful activists to emerge from the recession called for even less regulation, even lower taxes, and an even flimsier safety net. Were these self-styled patriots wearing three-cornered hats out of touch with reality? Not their reality: the Tea Party is a sour, middle- and upper-middle-class wave of resentment, comprising mostly college-educated white males over forty-five years old, one-fifth of whom earn more than $100,000 per year. We must take stock of the ironies of history that brought us to this point, where the first mass mobilization with teeth since the New Left turned out to be the “libertarian mob.”

Attending to this history reveals an unmistakable irony. That mob is in important ways fueled by the spread of freedom and equality since the 1960s, often reckoned a progressive undertaking. Since the social revolutions of that era, the individual and his or her rights and responsibilities have come to count for far more than collective tasks such as combating global warming and eliminating poverty. With social revolution has come economic: the expansion of consumer society, the proliferation of personal electronic devices, the growth of free-market ideology, the defeat of alternatives to unregulated capitalism. All foster a scenario of detachment, in which each of us is free to ignore our sense of belonging to a larger society. Citizenship is being reduced to participation in regular elections that rarely offer genuine alternatives to the prevailing system, to moments of cheering for our side and honoring “our heroes.” Even such collective action as exists is increasingly pitched in terms of the self-interest of millions of mes.

The privatization of hope, then, is not simply a matter of focusing energy and attention on oneself and one’s family. It is the withdrawal of personal expectation from the wider world, the rejection of even a possible democratic solidarity on behalf of a collective life encompassing and fit for all.

And the conclusion:

Today what must command our attention is not the radical falsity of the privatization of hope, which denies everyone’s deep social being, but its debilitating consequences. We are collectively losing the ability to cope with the most urgent problems. People who experience themselves as random, isolated individuals will never find the wherewithal to understand or agree upon, let alone master, the reality of climate change. The increasingly dangerous effect of two centuries of uncoordinated actions and dangers blurred by self-interest can be brought under control only if we accept that there is an us that has transformed nature and our relationship to it. To protect our common home from disaster, humans must form a responsive global collective. We must recover and enlarge social hope in the name of survival. But how to do this if a critical mass is in denial about the problem and lacks the ability to form a consensus and act together?

Our need, according to French social theorist Francis Jeanson, is for “citoyennisation”—the transformation of isolated and impotent individuals into active, militant citizens who experience their fate collectively and are willing to act on it democratically. Those trying to make this happen will have to negotiate not only the privatization of hope, but also the widespread acceptance of the maelstrom of progress and the pervasive cynicism of today’s advanced societies. Those who are already invested in political struggle will have to work their way beyond the boundaries inherent in identity politics and the thousands of other good causes clamoring for attention.

But no matter how privatized or narrowly focused we become, our latent capacity for generosity and need for connection remain only a tragedy or a disaster away from activation. In A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), Rebecca Solnit describes those utopian moments of hope, few and far between, when catastrophes lead to the breakdown of normal order and thereby demand that people collectively take control of their lives. Her examples reach from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina. Let us hope other collective challenges—from the Syrian refugee crisis to global climate change—do not have to reach disastrous proportions before we overcome our passivity and isolation and recover our capacity to act together.

This focus on the individual versus the collective is I think pretty central to how a lot of the left thinks about politics. As I have said many times in the past here, politics should not be about you. Really, you don’t matter, or you shouldn’t think you do. It’s not about what you want. It’s about the people around you, your family, your friends, your coworkers, society at large. Self-centeredness is a terrible way to approach politics. Yet it is too common in an era where people, and here I’m talking specifically about the left, show off their politics like their new tattoo. “If Candidate X doesn’t support my positions of GMOs, vaccinations, and foreign policy, then there is no way I will vote for that person.” As much as I respect Bernie Sanders, this sort of formulation is pretty common among a lot of his supporters, as applied to the Great Satan of Hillary Clinton. This is the core of the third party vanity campaigns of Ralph Nader that still are attractive to large numbers of people. It’s this idea of the collective over the individual, an idea with deep roots in the labor movement, that leads me so strongly to reject an electoral politics of purity so that “I can teach the Democrats a lesson.”

Rather, the greatest good for the greatest number is a much more productive, if significantly less satisfying, way to approach politics. Yet that requires compromise and a lack of personal fulfillment. At the core of this whole problem is that we consider ourselves empowered consumers who need to be personally appealed to in order for us to grant our vote, and thus we often make personal demands of politicians who of course cannot follow through on them. Sometimes this gets channeled into a mass movement that leads to inevitable disappointment (Barack Obama), sometimes this gets channeled toward a single candidate who doesn’t quite make it (Bernie Sanders), and quite often it leads to people either not voting or voting for protest candidates (Nader, Jill Stein, staying at home talking about the need for socialism or the evils of vaccinations on Facebook).

Ultimately, we need to break this extreme version of individualism that postwar culture has created to work toward collective solutions to our societal problems, ranging from unequal schools that are exacerbated by people moving to the suburbs for their kids to climate change to a fair and equal economy. That’s a big challenge and probably not one where we will make any progress.

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