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A Hard-Nosed Optimism

February 14, 2017

In last week’s essay I used the phrase “hard-nosed optimism” to describe the attitude needed now as “an alternative to the lies of divisive bullies who take advantage of the elites’ failures in order to promote their own patently greedy interests.” This is the optimism Antonio Gramsci probably had in mind when he coined the memorable phrase, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

For those who are paying attention to what’s happening in the world these days, pessimism of the intellect is easy enough to muster. There’s gloom in the air, especially in the United States, where Trump voters responded positively to what was easily the most downbeat pitch from any politician in living memory. In his inaugural address Trump spoke of “American carnage,” and in his campaign speeches and debates he often described the U.S. as virtually a blasted ruin, its cities in a state of advanced decay due to “crime, gangs, and drugs.” Jobs are gone, hope is nearly extinguished; “You walk down the street, you get shot.”

Now, following the election, what is arguably a more reality-based, anger-tinged melancholy has spread to those who voted against Trump. In an interview with Chris Hedges, Kali Akuno, the co-director of Cooperation Jackson and an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Jackson, Miss, paints about as grim a picture as possible, but one that would likely resonate in the minds of many American progressives:

“All forms of dissent will soon be criminalized. Civil liberties will no longer exist. Corporate exploitation, through the abolition of regulations and laws, will be unimpeded. Global warming will accelerate. A repugnant nationalism, amplified by government propaganda, will promote bigotry and racism. Hate crimes will explode. New wars will be launched or expanded.”

But for those who are really paying attention, the apprehension goes even deeper. The fact is, we are living at history’s greatest inflection point, as I tried to explain in my 2007 book Peak Everything. We today face an extreme ecological crisis (resource depletion, climate change, overpopulation). In addition, there are good reasons to conclude that our financial economy is a house of cards vulnerable to a moderately strong puff of wind. It’s time to brace for impact.

Without pessimism of the intellect, our behaviors are disconnected from reality. If you’re in a ship that’s sinking, it may be possible to act in a way that increases the number of survivors (perhaps only by one). But that requires, first of all, an acknowledgment of the dire situation; denial that your vessel is in trouble merely forecloses possibilities.

But without optimism of the will, intellectual pessimism is paralyzing. What exactly did Gramsci mean by “optimism of the will”? Permit me to speculate a little.

Crisis can often bring out the worst qualities in people. Tumult creates opportunities for . . . well, opportunists—bullies and hucksters. We have an example readily at hand: someone of Donald Trump’s character probably could not have arisen in American politics during a period of generally growing affluence such as prevailed in the 20th century (yes, we endured some dullards and crooks—but no one even approaching Trump’s level of pugnacious mendacity). But while bullies and hucksters can gain power and sow discord, they can’t be looked to as agents for improvement of our long-term survival prospects. For that, entirely different qualities of character are required.

As global industrial civilization fragments, persistence of the best of what we humans are and have achieved will require us to build resilient, enduring communities—ones with high internal levels of mutual trust, and that are capable of adapting quickly to changing conditions and responding effectively to a range of threats. Such communities arise and sustain themselves only by nurturing and prizing certain qualities of character on the part of their members.

The people who are most likely to be of use in such communities are those who exhibit old-fashioned virtues, including honesty, bravery, self-control, cheerfulness, humility, and generosity. The ability to amuse and entertain oneself and others will be a welcome bonus; likewise the ability to speak convincingly, and the willingness both to endure discomfort and to find satisfaction in small things. I think qualities like these may start to get at what Gramsci meant by “optimism of the will.”

None of us scores 100 on the character test. In fact, writing about noble qualities of character is uncomfortable, because doing so inevitably invites investigation into the character of the writer—and I’m certainly not proposing to set myself up as an example. All I can say is, I’m trying (not hard enough, I’m sure some would say). Nevertheless the subject of character seems unavoidable.

Initially, character is formed by early childhood experiences, by culture, and perhaps also by heredity. Consumer culture reliably produces generations of self-absorbed whiners, and social media don’t seem to be helping much with that. But even with such excuses readily at hand, no competent adult can abdicate the responsibility for character building, which is an ongoing and cumulative task.

Indigenous people knew all about this. They had to rely on direct daily interactions with one another for nearly everything, and everyone knew that habitual complaining, lying, and boasting could eventually get you ostracized—effectively a death sentence. Reading accounts by early European explorers, or by later first-contact field anthropologists, one cannot help but be struck by the degree to which people in the simplest societies held themselves and one another to a high standard of speech and behavior.

Modern economies appear to run less on character, more on energy, resources, investment, debt, and innovation. But in the world that’s coming, who we are may once again matter more than what we have.

Notice I haven’t mentioned technology much in this essay. Most future gazing, whether of the utopian or dystopian variety, focuses on tools and what they can do for us. If civilization gets downsized in the next few decades, then knowing how to build and operate low-tech devices for meeting human needs will undoubtedly aid with survival. But really effective preparation for what’s coming may best begin not with our choice of gadgetry, but with ourselves.

Unless we are able to build human cultures that truly deserve to survive, what’s the point of survival? And such cultures must be comprised of, and sustained by, people who hold quality of character as the highest good.

If it takes a Donald Trump to remind us of this ancient truth, then at least he will have done us that service.

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